Earlier this year, Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” concluded an earnest moment of connection (slight spoilers – as much as that movie can be spoiled) with the protagonist, Blake Jenner’s Jake Bradford, describing his college essay’s reinterpretation of the Greek myth of Sisyphus. In his mind, the Sisyphean task of rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down, was not merely cosmic punishment. His eternal recurrence was instead an unintended cosmic gift that gives him a chance to find meaning and purpose.
No such solace or comfort can be found in the more straightforward Sisyphean tale told by Kenneth Lonergan in “Manchester by the Sea.” We meet his central character, Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler, going through a series of repetitive toils in his work as an apartment complex’s janitor. Going from unit to unit, he fixes problems that residents could either fix themselves or avoid entirely. When not waiting hand and foot on tenants, Lee shovels the snow off the walkway to his basement dwelling, and the snow never seems to stay clear.
Lee Chandler is a modern Sisyphus of Massachusetts, a fate made even more distressing because he appears to have resigned himself to it. His percolating wit and acerbic banter with the people he must serve indicates an intellect far superior than the average sanitation engineer. If there is any upside to this situation, Lee willingly blinds himself to it.
As time passes and tragedy strikes the Chandler family tree with the young death of Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), we come to possess a deeper understanding of Lee’s self-imposed exile. He is the ultimate embodiment of Catholic guilt, responding to a perceived lack of divine justice against a life-changing mistake by taking the role of punisher away from a seemingly absent authority. He enters into an existence of almost complete asceticism, not because he hopes to earn redemption but because wishes never to escape the burden of his misdeeds.
Lonergan gradually bears out the circumstances of Lee’s conversion to a borderline monastic existence through a deceptively well-reasoned flashback system – perhaps the most motivated since “Blue Jasmine.” These scenes from Lee’s past do not interrupt or forward the present-day story. They are not a transition between plot points, either. The flashbacks present a glimpse into his tortured mind as he revisits the scenes of traumatic memories that trigger associations with a version of himself with whom he has disassociated. So often, we see Lee cast his gaze downward, losing himself – flagellating himself – by dwelling in a legacy of pain. This is our glimpse into his cold refuge.
It’s a stark contrast from the coping mechanism of Lee’s nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), the newly fatherless teen who also looks downward – into his phone. He can avoid the pain of Joe’s passing by surrounding himself with friends, who can congregate both physically at his family home and virtually in his messaging app. The phone also allows him to focus on something far more comforting than the necessary confrontation of his grief: sex, which he pursues with two separate girls.
In his will, Joe attempts to do in death what he was unable to do in life – turn his brother’s life back around. He hopes to achieve this by leaving guardianship of Patrick to Lee, along with plenty of cash and resources to accommodate such a change. It’s a move that, if successful, would set Lee on a traditional trajectory of redemption. Most of “Manchester by the Sea” consists of him bristling against the assumption that he can be redeemed.
Lonergan knows that grief does not easily ascribe itself to cozy narrative arcs or even a single emotional chord. In fact, the film is often quite funny in what might seem like the most inappropriate, inopportune moments. While one person may experience a calamitous occurrence, the world continues to turn, its cruel irony sparing no one and no circumstance.
Rather than cry or sulk, Lee and Patrick mostly claw at each other (in true Massachusetts form) for not meeting each other’s expectations of the role they should play. Patrick needs a father or, at the very least, some family member to provide him with stability given the absence of his recovering alcoholic mother. In his own mind, Lee needs to be left alone to resume the shouldering the remembrance of his past. Neither moves towards each other as perhaps they should. Lee and Patrick simply walk in circles, with the occasional bumping into each other on the way that prompts a moment of reflection and introspection.
Back to Sisyphus. His punishment is eternal. Lonergan only provides a small window into Lee’s pushing that boulder up the hill. The act never changes, though we get a few glimpses of potential shifts in motivation and anticipation of outcome. Beat for beat, push for push, Lonergan aligns our viewing of “Manchester by the Sea” with Lee’s slow, steady exertion and the boulder’s resistance. As we learn more about him through muscle memory and the infrequent yet powerful displays of feeling, his struggle becomes ours. For two hours, we come to do emotional labor alongside him. It is a challenging, unsavory task to work alongside someone who neither sees nor seeks exit from interminable pain.
But it is Lee’s choice, one that we may not understand but can definitely sense somewhere in the deep recesses of the soul. Many films ask us to sympathize with a character, and some even attempt to do so with a complicated, tortured figure. “Manchester by the Sea” elicits such an outpouring of our emotion because we do not merely observe Lee’s struggles – we participate in them through the ebbs and flows of the film’s structure. A /