Fallen and Alone in Manchester

Massive (and multiple) spoiler alerts! If you are planning on seeing the film Manchester by the Sea, and enjoy entering a theater carrying popcorn and the expectation of being surprised, well, you should just stop reading this very second. Go watch the movie. Then come on back!

In Kenneth Lonergan’s new film, Manchester by the Sea, Casey Affleck plays Lee, a broken man who, after the death of his older brother, is yanked back to his hometown and forced to take care of his sixteen-year-old nephew Patrick. There are complications, of course, including the fact that Lee is adrift, tied most tightly to a tragic past that has left him unmoored. At one point, Patrick considers moving in with his estranged mother. When he sees her and her new husband at lunch for the first time in years, an image of Jesus floats on the wall and a sea of tchotchkes proclaims her born-again faith. The meal does not go well, and as Uncle Lee drives him home, Patrick reports that his mother is now a Christian. “We’re Christians too, you know,” Lee replies. “Catholics are Christians too.”

Supposedly, the big Catholic movie of this Christmas season is Martin Scorsese’s Silence, an epic film about two Portuguese Jesuit priests facing down death and demons in seventeenth-century Japan. But Manchester by the Sea is about as Catholic as it gets.

In Protestant storytelling, we are all sinners, but Jesus makes it better on the cross. So, apocalypse aside, things move rather smoothly from sin to redemption to glory. Hollywood is Protestant in that regard. If this were a Protestant film, or a more typically Hollywood one, Lee would be broken and then reborn in some suitably secular way, awakened in body by a girlfriend, perhaps, and in soul by the  nephew now in his charge. But in Catholicism, and often in real life, we are all broken, and some of us just stay that way. Life bears down too hard. It asks too much. So some tap out of the social world and wrestle with themselves alone, turning down sex and invitations to lunch, refusing to engage in small talk, forever bearing our shoulders up and in, as if that posture will somehow ready us for the next horrific thing.

There are all sorts of scenes in Manchester by the Sea that linger with you the way light snow lingers over its cinematography. In one toward the end, Lee’s tortured guardianship of his nephew Patrick seems finally to be moving toward some sort of redemptive resolution. Instead, Patrick tells Lee that he has found a job in Boston and that they will soon go their separate ways. “I just can’t beat it,” he says. “I just can’t beat it.”

Even closer to the end, Lee’s ex-wife Randi, played masterfully by Michelle Williams, offers another opportunity at redemption. There is a chance encounter on the street where only her new baby in a stroller separates them. The tragedy Lee has barely survived was a tragedy he shared with her. She tells him she is sorry. She is sorry for blaming him. She is sorry for all the awful things she said to him. She says she should burn in hell for what she said, and as she does the skin on her face and around her clavicle lights up blood red. She is there for absolution. He absolves her. He is her priest. He hears her confession.

But she is also there to crack him open like she herself has been cracked open. She wants to see him spark again. She wants him to unstiffen himself, to say or do something that might ease his shoulders back into place. She is as vulnerable as we humans get. She is crying. She has remarried. She has a newborn child, inches away. But she tells him she still loves him. This is a confession he cannot hear. He is too broken to meet her open heart with one of his own. There is no cracking him open any more. “I have to go,” he says, as he has said a dozen times already. And he does. Straight to a bar where he sucker punches the first guy who dares looks him in the eye.

It doesn’t get any prettier after that. He will never be satisfied. And neither will we, if we are looking for a Hollywood ending, which is to say a Protestant one. There will be no smiling Jesus pictures on Lee’s walls. No dining room tchotchkes will testify to his easy faith. The only testimony here is to brokenness, to the fact that life can break us down without breaking us open. Sometime it’s just sin all the way down.

Writer Richard Rodriguez migrated with his family from Catholic Mexico to Protestant America, and many of his essays ruminate on that far passage from a tragic country to a comic one. In Protestantism, the crosses are empty of human bodies. But the Catholic/Protestant distinction for Rodriguez is less about Good Friday versus Easter. It is more fundamentally about communalism versus individualism. In Catholicism, you can’t make it on your own. You need Mary and the saints and the sacraments of your parish priest. In Protestantism, you can read the Bible for yourself. You can pray directly to God. To those with a personal relationship with Christ, priests and popes are superfluous. So are your grandmothers and grandfathers.

“The prayerful life of the church is a communal achievement, prayer going on like the tide of the sea,” Rodriguez writes. And there are occasional glimpses of that communal achievement whenever Lee and Patrick get out onto a fishing boat and embody, together, young men and the sea. But, according to Rodriguez again, “the implication of Catholicism is that man is powerless alone.” Manchester by the Sea demonstrates that powerlessness, in scene after scene where the only real human contact Lee is able to muster comes at the end of his fist

Kenneth Lonergan is, like many Americans nowadays, the product of a mixed marriage: Jewish mother, Irish-Catholic father. So who knows where all this is coming from, though there is in Judaism as well the notion that the world is broken, and perhaps even God himself. But what I saw was a cinematic incarnation of Catholicism’s tragic sense of life, rooted in that sense of alienation from self and others and God that thinkers from Paul to Augustine to Niebuhr have referred to as sin. Lee isn’t a sinner in the sense of being a bad man. But he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, and it’s not a weight he can bear up on his own.

Stephen Prothero teaches at Boston University and writes books, including God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter, published by HarperOne. His latest is Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections).