MANCHESTER BY THE SEA and the myth of absolution

[Warning: spoilers ahead]

There is the scene, the one scene, in Manchester by the Sea that is all anyone can talk about afterward. If you’ve seen the film, then you know: the one in which Lee runs into Randi on the street. At the point, the viewer has the sense that Lee is beginning to crawl out from under the tragedy that has shrouded his life, but seeing her is a blow to the solar plexus he can’t handle. It’s the encounter, however, he knew was coming from the moment he returned to town.

She just wants to talk. He’ll have none of it.

She wants to absolve him. He won’t hear of it.

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Michelle Williams, rightly, has been praised for the sorrow with which she infuses her character. But when I watch this scene–and I’ve watched it now perhaps a dozen times– I can’t take my eyes off of Casey Affleck. His face frozen, willing himself not to react, not give in, not feel. He keeps shaking his head, as if he’s denying her corporeal existence. “You don’t understand,” he finally tells her as she implores him to open up. “There’s nothing there.” Maybe she isn’t the ghost. Maybe he is.

It all reminded me of this famous scene from On the Waterfront, another tale of working-class men trying to live by a code that doesn’t always serve them well.


Confronted with his brother’s treachery, Marlon Brando’s Terry combines realization, resignation, and sadness. He recognizes that something has forever changed between them. Their bond is gone and irretrievable.

That’s Lee in the scene with Randi. The director, Kenneth Lonergan, has made us fill in the blanks in their relationship following the horrific event that sent them spinning from each other. But it’s not a stretch to suggest that Lee has lain awake at nights (when he hasn’t drunk himself into a stupor) rehearsing his lines for the time when he would see Randi again, what he would say to her, what she would say to him.

In all that time, he likely never envisioned she would offer him forgiveness. That would be too much to ask. But it’s a fantasy that many of us can understand, the desire to have someone we have let down reappear suddenly to attempt with compassion to ease our self-imposed burden, to deliver us from exile. You can use the word closure if you want.

Here’s the thing Lee realizes as he listens to Randi. There is no closure for him. “I can’t beat it,” he says at another point in the film. Empathy is useless. Her sadness only magnifies his own. And her offer of absolution holds no weight, even if it was something he once privately craved. She lacks the power to deliver him from his misery. Only he can do that. He hasn’t done it yet and it’s entirely possible he’ll never allow it to happen. Forgiveness doesn’t change the facts on the ground.

In my post on Arrival, I wrote about the parent as time traveler, that our children, in a way, a exist in a quantum state in which their various versions are present in our minds simultaneously. But Lee in Manchester is stuck in time, to borrow from Vonnegut. He won’t look backward and can’t move forward. There’s another scene, late in the film, that carries echoes of Arrival, but the images bring only pain, not joy, and they certainly provide no closure of any kind. Another director might have been tempted to grant Lee a moment of relief, but not Lonergan. Some choices we live with forever. That’s the genius of the film.

In fact, while I was sitting here in a restaurant writing this, I struck up a conversation with an older man who told me that his wife died a year and a half ago.

“I’m not over it,” he said.

“Why would you be?” I replied.

He nodded. “We were together for 50 years.”

He was “moving on” as he was expected to, but the truth was more complicated. He was never really going to move on. He was adjusting. He was maintaining.

manchester-by-the-sea-michelle-williams-casey-affleck-promoThe song that has been in my head lately is by The Avett Brothers. The central lyric goes like this:

But I still wake up shaken by dreams
And I hate to say it but the way it seems
Is that no one is fine
Take the time to peel a few layers
And you will find
True sadness

Is that too grim? Or is it about, as I like to think, properly observing the human condition, about the mistakes, secrets and tragedies will all bury within. Manchester by the Sea is a rewarding journey into true sadness, as deep and chilling, to mix my Brando references, as the journey Kurtz takes in Vietnam. And it’s a film that, for whatever reason, has stayed with me now for an unusually long time.

At its particular heart of darkness, Manchester is the story of a fallen man who doesn’t magically find grace at the end. There are no epiphanies. What Lee learns, if he learns anything at all, is that he just might find a way to live with himself. Maybe that’s enough.

– James Oliphant



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