How Kenneth Lonergan finally broke through to the Oscar crowd by speaking their language.
Kenneth Lonergan has suffered greatly. This is not a deep reading of the work of a writer and director who stands somewhat likely to net Academy Awards for either his writing or his directing at the end of this month. It is, however, a common one: among the words trailing Manchester By the Sea are “meditation on the long tail of trauma,” “a handmade human tragedy,” and, for good measure, “devastating.” Lonergan, curiously, has been making devastating stuff for most of his life but, well over the age of fifty, Manchester is his first product to meet this level of rapturous acclaim. Manufacturing what Margret Talbot calls “tight-focus character dramas” since the turn of the millennium, suffering, off-screen or on, is the most blatant motif of his work. A kind of ceaseless emotional hemorrhaging, all internal, haunts his tightly-focused characters like something really bad they ate for lunch. But unlike, say, Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch or even some of the later war movie work of dramatists like Kathryn Bigelow, Lonergan’s interest in scripting death and destruction isn’t remotely connected to crafting a certain aesthetic experience, the old question of watching somebody’s ear getting cut off or watching the ear. Death in Lonergan’s work instead is a communal and often quiet experience, one that looks its audience straight in the eye and strikes a pose somewhere between solemnity and painfully humming the brave words of a certain Flaming Lips song. It’s only in Manchester By the Sea, however, that popular audience seem to have cared.
Susan Sontag, writing toward the end of her life, observed, “To catch death actually happening and embalm it for all time is something only cameras can do.” The world of Hollywood, whose feelings are generally mixed on the value of ordinary and boring lives, is surprisingly interested in capturing and embalming the deaths of ordinary people. While studiously avoiding the art house fare of, say, a thirteen-hour Balzacian piece of cinéma vérité, the Academy has an interesting history of awarding Oscars to sensationalized and quotidian dramas of either dying or watching others, with less screen time, die. The infamous best picture-winner, Paul Haggis’ Crash (2005), while much hated for its laughable racial politics, also did not fill its shaky cameras with, say, civil servants doing their jobs, policemen twirling batons or hooded gentlemen politely borrowing cars from generous suburbanites. The everyday, for Haggis, is more than just a place for questionably-informed dialogue about ignorance and prejudice. It is a place where orchestras can blare and motion can slow down in order for children to be shot at in the hands of their fathers and middle aged men can stop to watch their fathers die in low-lighting. These may, perhaps, be real experiences that everyone goes through in some way or another, but so is doing the dishes. The attendant dramas of death, while so full of mystery for most, can nonetheless feel captured, embalmed, by the motion picture. Death may be ambiguous but movies about death do not have to be.
To Lonergan’s credit, Manchester veers closer to a different morbid Oscar-winning everyday thriller, Robert Redford’s Ordinary People, a movie that similarly involves spying on the suburban people overcoming a similarly unbearable loss that similarly utilizes dramatic touches like slow reveals and staggered pacing in order to render its everyday loss palatably. In Manchester, more of an argument, perhaps, is made that the pain it presents is not supposed to mean something but, rather, stands in as a signifier for the daily brutality of misfortune, especially given Lonergan’s career-long obsession with death. That itself, Alicia Christoff has very brilliantly argued, entails something of a political stance: “Rather than critiquing white male privilege, the film seems merely to highlight the experience of pain it entails…possibly applauding men in all of their stoicism, their mystery, their silent strength.” By remaining stoic and very serious, Manchester’s Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is able to openly receive the pain of the mass audience that the film desires, and because he does not demand that we do anything with it, we are weirdly satisfied. It is an experience akin to the moment of silence after a public tragedy, the erecting of war monuments after large and collective losses. Manchester, supposedly an opus about the irresolvability of pain, is quite resolute. Lee leaves the titular Manchester, just as we are about to leave the movie theater.
Lonergan has been thinking about death for quite some time. As a struggling New York playwright, his first hit was “This Is Our Youth,” a play that debuted off-Broadway sometime in the ’90s. The play’s focused on two adolescents in the Upper West Side who have had it with Reagan-era conformity: Warren, kicked out of his apartment by his father for smoking too much pot, and Dennis, who is cool and tries to orchestrate some kind of cocaine deal. Dennis is Lonergan’s hero, an alpha-male who doubles as an emotional wreck and was played by Kieran Culkin in a recent Broadway revival. He is a close cousin to Manchester’s Patrick (Lucas Hedges, up for a Best Supporting Actor nod): their sexual desirability is emphasized in order to sketch out exactly how totalizing their suffering is; more directly, both have lost member of their immediate family. A never seen sister, in Dennis’ case, we learn, has died in a tragic past. Also unseen and tragic in the play is the death of an obese drug dealer that the boys call The Fat Man who overdoses between the play’s first and second act. Dennis hears of the news by telephone and is seriously freaked out:
It is sort of amazing that one of us actually died. You know? It’s like my Dad’s always saying, do you know how bad you guys would have to fuck up before anything really serious ever happened to you? You and all your friends from the Upper West Side who went to that fucking school […] you know what happens to other kids who do the kind of shit you guys do? They die, man.
Death, for Lonergan, is the ultimate measure of real life: it trumps drug deals and social politics, it trumps getting laid. A fine and popular thesis, certainly, the only question is how did it take over a decade and a half for Lonergan to make his Crash?
As it happened, Lonergan did not choose to build his career, as some have, on kids who angst loudly in the Upper West Side. He would return there only once, in his career’s sole masterpiece and complete flop, Margaret (2011), a movie that cost $14 million to make and boasted returns somewhere vaguely north of half a mil. Some of that could be explained by the half-decade of production hell and lawsuits that hampered its distributor, Fox Searchlight, from wanting much to do with it. But Margaret was also, in the words of Richard Brody, “an intellectual film,” which is a way of saying that it is populated by intellectual people who think intellectual thoughts. Its heroine is a high school student named Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) who waves at a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), who proceeds to run over a complete stranger (Allison Janney), who then proceeds to die in Lisa’s arms. The Mrs. Dalloway-meets-Magnolia (2000) conceit is something very removed from the populist ordinariness of watching everyday people lose members of their everyday families. The tension of its central death is unresolved because the movie tackles the very social structures to resolve the daily tumult of death. Which is why the movie juxtaposes its central death with the one of the most thought-about deaths of our era. Filmed in a post-9/11 New York, Margaret asks a slyly obtuse question with a queasy answer: just how meaningful can we find the death of strangers, be they 2,996 people or the single stranger crossing the street who dies somewhere every day?
But Manchester’s most obvious model for making a populist piece of entertainment was, likely, Lonergan’s debut feature, a Sundance favorite titled You Can Count on Me (2000). Like Manchester, it is a movie very much about “the kind of people you see at the supermarket”: Laura Linney plays an unassuming bank clerk named Sammy and Mark Ruffalo occupies himself, this time, with the character of her brother, Terry: a drifter who has served a small amount of time in jail. As it happens, Terry finds himself drifting back home into his sister’s life who, as it also happens, is looking for a male role model for her son (an impossibly young Rory Culkin). What of Terry and Sammy’s parents, you ask? They died in a horrible car crash in the children’s shared youth. Miraculously, perhaps, the father is still alive but out of the picture.
This car crash, like Lee Chandler’s dead children, ensures that Terry will not be staying around for longer than the length of a movie. Lonergan communicates this tidily: a small scene brings Terry to the graves of his dead parents and, after some silence, he shrugs off to deliver a moody speech to Rory about why he absolutely must “get out of this town.” But You Can Count on Me is also a cute movie, establishing Lonergan’s hand for deftly endowing space with weird life worthy of the Coen Brothers. Lonergan’s Scottsville is a delight, full of odd people. Its best sis probably the married bank manager that Sammy has an affair with, played by a dutifully wacky Matthew Broderick. Broderick, interestingly, reappears in Manchester (he appears in Margaret, in a vaguely similar subplot that remains, probably, the best scene in the entire movie. There, he plays a die-hard Christian named Jeffery that Patrick’s mother (Gretchen Mol) had turned to after leaving both Patrick and his dying, now dead, father. In a gorgeously-wrought slice of tension, she invites Patrick over for lunch and, afterward, Jeffery emails him and commands him to communicate with him if Patrick would like to “arrange any further visits.” Everything about the scene is, of course, absurdly sad: Patrick’s calm, almost studious, presence; the mother, barely capable of even vicariously reenacting an earlier abandonment. But like Lisa Cohen’s mother, in Margaret, who begins a relationship with a man who dies quietly shortly after, the scene with Gretchen Mol is determinately small. It is too weird, almost, to manipulate our sympathy.
But the language of Manchester is rarely so awkward. Like the Oscar winners before it, Manchester communicates its morbidity through broad strokes and, if Lee Chandler feels mysterious, it’s at odds with a movie that couldn’t be more plain. Dirt is frozen so bodies can’t be buried, freezers are full of chickens they need to unload. Parents, children, like everyone else, die. These are ordinary tragedies and they’re as relatable as a car crash.