Note: this post contains spoilers for both Manchester by the Sea and Neon Genesis Evangelion/The End of Evangelion.
I’m a little surprised at the unanimous praise for Manchester by the Sea. Maybe I shouldn’t be, maybe it’s just me being out of touch with the general mindset of film critics and connoisseurs. But I can’t help it; I felt nothing but contempt while watching this movie.
When picked apart, the various elements of Manchester by the Sea are all adequate. The direction is serviceable, if somewhat uninspired. The acting fits the dour tone but often comes across as intentionally flat to maintain a sense that these are real people, not movie characters. By remaining down-to-earth the film has an underlying feeling of wheel-spinning that I’ve felt while visiting family in similar Massachusetts towns over the years. Yet all of this comes together in service of what I found to be an absolutely miserable experience that goes too far in its adherence to reality. I often see a consensus in popular culture that realism results in inherently more relatable narratives but I think that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Characters are, by definition, not real people. Real people are boring and inconsequential. It’s human nature to worry more about our own trials and tribulations than those of people we hardly know. Thus, when we perceive a character as being too realistic we’re more likely to question why we should care about them in the first place.
This is what happened with me and Lee Chandler, the main character of Manchester by the Sea. The first sequence of the movie has him going through his daily life as a loner plumber. He’s wholly unpleasant, getting into bar fights and mildly losing his temper with a client (although somewhat justifiably I must admit). We’re given no reason to like or care about Lee because there’s nothing noteworthy about him other than being generally unhappy and apathetic at all times.
Once we move past the first act of the movie without a clear idea of what makes Lee’s story worth telling it becomes increasingly difficult to engage with him. Sure, it’s sad when his kids die at the midpoint but it evokes the same feeling of disconnected empathy I’d have when reading about an identical event in the news. I would feel bad for those affected but my emotional engagement would end there. Lee doesn’t have the privilege of being a real person though so any emotional response backfires into resentment on the part of the film when it starts to feel oppressively manipulative.
I don’t mind when a story makes me feel uncomfortable. I actually think it’s one of the most powerful emotions you can draw out of a viewer when utilized correctly. Take the first scene of The End of Evangelion for example. After spending twenty-six episodes of the preceding anime series becoming deeply attached to the characters and their interpersonal relationships, the movie starts off with the protagonist Shinji Ikari masturbating over the exposed breasts of his peer and fellow EVA pilot Asuka Langley Soryu.
Oh, did I mention that she’s hospitalized in a comatose state Did I mention these are fourteen-year-old kids? Did I mention this is all happening on the crux of the literal end of the world? You get the point.
That scene was one of the most strikingly uncomfortable moments I’ve ever experienced in a story and the final shot of Shinji’s semen-covered hand above Asuka’s naked body in the background only cements it further (no pun intended). We understand why it happens though: these kids are psychologically traumatized due to their troubled pasts and recent burdens of being the Earth’s last line of defense which they are in no way mentally equipped for (they’re fourteen!). Shinji’s emotional repression combined with his view of Asuka as a sexual figure mix in the most unnerving of ways and, well, you get what you get.
I could ramble about Evangelion for ages (and I plan on doing so in another piece soon) but the point here is that the way it makes the viewer feel uncomfortable works because we’ve bought into the characters by that point. In Manchester, Lee is a blank slate of unhappiness so when he’s acting out due to his sorrow it becomes emotionally grating to watch. While witnessing Lee become unhinged through his numerous drunken bar fights, window-punching fits and suicide attempt using a police officer’s gun, all I could think was how he was the most uninterestingly unlikable average Joe out there. There’s nothing extraordinary or special about why he’s unlikable, he just is.
By the end of the film it feels like Lee has barely moved the needle on growing as a person. He simply seems like a guy that things have happened to rather than someone who experienced change through the events that transpired (Heck, most of the tragedy surrounding Lee happened in his past!). At this point I was mentally checked out of the movie though. I just didn’t care. Lee was indistinguishable from the guy sitting halfway down the row in my theater as I questioned why we needed a film exceeding two hours to tell his boring, normal story of pain and misery.
At least that’s what I took away from the movie. One look at the film’s 97% Rotten Tomatoes score and you’ll see I’m in the vast minority on this. Thus, I’d love to hear the perspectives of those who enjoyed the film and the character of Lee! I encourage you to leave your perspective in the comments and I’ll reply as soon as I can.