“Manchester By the Sea” writer-director Kenneth Lonergan was a playwright first. He’s often lauded for his dialogue, rich character development, and the performances he gets from actors. Taken as whole, these descriptions could be interpreted as being a kind way of saying that his film is insufficiently cinematic.
That would miss the point. Like his previous films, “You Can Count on Me” and “Margaret,” his script for “Manchester By the Sea” draws a great deal of its power by taking advantage of the way movie audiences absorb story.
Building the Mask
At the beginning of “Manchester,” we watch Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), an apartment building handyman, react to his tenants — the indecisive man with a plumbing problem, the woman crushing on him as he unclogs her toilet bowl, a confrontational woman bizarrely accusing him of wanting to watch her take a shower. He’s comically expressionless as he goes about his work.
Then, his dispassion continues under far more serious circumstances. We watch him maintain that same stone face as he takes a call informing him that his brother has been taken to the hospital. Later, Lee reacts to news of his brother’s death by focusing on logistical details. There’s an awkwardness in how he doesn’t emote.
Instinctively, we know there’s something not quite right about this character. In the first act of the film, Lonergan is positioning the audience to watch Lee’s reactions and ask, “What is this guy’s story?” When he returns to his hometown of Manchester and people start whispering, Lonergan trains the viewer to wonder how Lee’s past might explain the character behind this mask.
When To Use Flashbacks
Used to fill in a character’s back story or clarify a plot point, flashbacks are often cruelly misused as expositional crutches. By calling attention to the past, flashbacks can self-consciously remove the viewer from a present. Worse, exposition and backstory are the antithesis of how film stories work; more than any other medium, films are in the present tense. They allow us understand a character’s internal thoughts and feelings by watching how they react, act and move.
In Lee’s case, his past doesn’t just explain his present; it looms over and dictates it. The flashback that reveals his tragedy rises to the surface at the exact moment Lee is unable to suppress it. As his brother’s lawyer delivers the surprising news that Lee has been named guardian of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Lee’s mind goes back to the events of losing his own children. The film’s central conflict emerges from this scene: Lee’s inability to care for Patrick, and honor his deceased brother’s wish, is due to the trauma of not having been able to keep his own children safe. Lee’s past becomes the present story’s principal obstacle and source of conflict.
The flashback scene with the lawyer emotionally opens up the film. As Lonergan cuts back and forth between Lee squirming in his seat hearing the lawyer’s news and the emergence of his traumatic past in his head, we see Lee differently. His lack of affect is actually an expression of suppressing grave trauma.
Create Understanding and Deeper Meaning Through Omission
His brother’s attorney, performing a professional duty, is the only character we see acknowledge Lee’s past. (“No one can appreciate what you’ve been through.”) Lonergan chooses to show us the past through a specific lens, carefully omitting key elements.
Lonergan uses a long lens to shoot the fire’s aftermath. Quiet classical music plays. His wife Randi (Michelle William) has an oxygen mask as she’s put into an ambulance. Lee wanders in daze. The audience is distant, removed from Lee. Lonergan saves the moment of real pathos for when Lee retells police officers how his actions led to the death of his children. Shocked that he’s not under arrest, Lee grabs a gun from an unexpecting cop and tries to kill himself.
By having the audience experience Lee’s grief in this scene, the audience is positioned to see this trauma through Lee’s attempt to kill himself and desire to be punished. We see that most of Lee’s present-day actions replay what happened in that station, except without the gun. There’s no human connection, grief, or dialogue about what Lee experienced.
The omissions continue even in the film’s most powerful scene, when Lee’s ex-wife stops him on the street and tries to talk to him about forgiving himself and rejoining life. “I said a lot of terrible things to you,” she says.
There’s nothing more about Lee and Randi’s marriage, yet we’re instinctively able to fill in the blanks: Randi and Lee both blamed Lee for their childrens’ deaths, Randi allowed herself to grieve and has started a new life with another man, but now feels guilty about Lee still holding a gun to his head. All of this comes in one remarkable scene with nearly no exposition, except that line of dialogue. This knowledge adds the unbearable tension of Lee being unable to receive Randi’s outreached hand.
More than any other writer working in film, Lonergan understands the power of omission. Up to this point, Lonergan has denied us a moment of emotional outlet. Lee’s desperate need to stay emotionless and end the scene is unbearably painful, and is payoff for the careful choices Lonergan made in setting it up.
There’s power in letting the audience fill in the blanks, a device that defined Lonergan’s “You Can Count on Me.” At the end of the film, Mark Ruffalo is about to board a bus toward an unclear future. He emotionally repeats to his sister (Laura Linney), “Remember what we use to say.” The characters never say “what we use to say,” yet the audience instinctively knows it’s the film’s title: You can count on me. It’s not unlike Lonergan’s choice to never see the kids’ face in the photos Lee carries around with him.
Lonergan is a master of cutting through time and space in a way that lets audience fill in backstory. When Lee goes to the dock and asks a man for a job, the man’s wife says, “I don’t want him around here.” Cut to: Lee forces a bar fight. We are told little about Lee’s circumstances of leaving Manchester the first time, but we instantly understand this was behavior the town came to expect from Lee. There’s efficiency in juxtaposing such moments, which allows the viewer to watch Lee’s onscreen actions with an emotional understanding of his internal state.
Truth and Beauty in Humor
Humor breaks up the bleakness in“Manchester” and helps the audience stay engaged. There’s a careful tonal meter that keeps the film from falling into despair. However, this isn’t simply a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down; it’s tied to how Lonergan sees the world and his characters.
Lonergan’s films are about people who can’t get over their past traumas, but he also finds great beauty and humanity in their struggles. This best manifests itself in his use of humor, where small truths sneak to the surface.
For example, in an early scene there’s a miscommunication between Lee and Patrick, who opens the door to the car to get out just as Lee hits the gas pedal. Lee’s overreaction and Patrick’s quick comeback leads to a humorous beat, but the moment also embodies the film’s central conflict: Lee’s action led to the death of his children, and he’s incapable of being responsible for Patrick’s well-being. The film is a journey to see if Lee can overcome this and form a new family with Patrick (clearly his brother’s unspoken plan, another example of the audience being set up to fill in backstory gaps), but Lonergan doesn’t see this as all despair. Although Lee eventually admits he’s unable to get over his past, his coming to peace about it (“I can’t get past it,” he tells Patrick, the only moment when Lee acknowledges his struggle) is moving. Lonergan sees the beauty in that journey.
Author Note: Thank you to Steve Collins for his contribution to this article.