There is a scene near the end of the movie where the main character’s divorced wife springs an emotional ambush. Propelled by shame, regret, compassion, self-loathing, and impossibility she flails to reach out to the one person in the tossing universe who might be as broken as she. It might be the climatic scene of a film carefully crafted to elide many contrivances of conventional drama - including the concept of “climax”.
The movie “Manchester by the Sea” opens with a vivid evocation of the universal truth that “Shit Happens”. It happens all the time in all kinds of ways - and will keep on happening ad infinitum as long as our species persists, whether or not we remain able to maintain amenities like indoor plumbing. It happens and keeps on happening, and sometimes it breaks more than the pipes.
I saw the movie on December 25 in the cold capital city of New Hampshire. We’d been driven in from the sticks by my girlfriend's much senior sister, a self-avowed feminist, moderator of small town meetings ,and a maintainer of the League of Women Voters. Though agreeing it was not superficially a Christmas movie, she noted it tried to be about love.
But it was mostly about the love men have when they are strong enough, the way they love life when they can, the way they love children when they do, and the way they can try to love women. It’s about how love can grow out from the cracks of devastation, and the way it can extend from the grave or from a freezer in the morgue.
Our chauffeur and chaperone noted with appreciation how this gendered love was so masterfully depicted between awkward characters so flawed and limited. And without rancor, she pointed out that the women in this film were portrayed in especially unsympathetic lights and angles.
More than once she used the word“selfish” to describe the behavior of the female characters. The word applied somewhat to a girlfriend butting into how boys distracted their mutual friend from the overwhelming reality of a father’s death and how she then imposed herself into a bereaved uncle’s attempts to arrange the funeral for a lost brother. It applied to the mom of an “other girlfriend” who couldn’t leave her daughter upstairs alone long enough to receive boy attention if she, herself, wasn’t able to elicit the desired downstairs attention from a man. And to our, driver it applied most of all to a very broken woman’s emotional assault against her ex-husband on a sloping side street in Manchester By The Sea.
The word “selfish” surprised me because I had seen only the character’s brokenness, and I confess my first silent (and uncharitable) reaction to the word was on the harshness women so often seem to direct at one another. But I quickly realized that, in this case, she was right no matter how impossible it might be to seal one’s “self” closed over - or to control the internal thrashing that seeks to burst outside the “self”.
The bit in the film that most tickled and intrigued me was how the grieving uncle steered his bereaved nephew from one girlfriend (brunette) to the other (blond). Both the boy’s mother, who we first meet dead drunk and pantsless, and the uncle’s wife (the ambusher) were also blondes. And of course, those marriages, like all marriages, were quite troubled with each broken by forces as powerful and unmerciful as the sea. This bit is developed most amusingly (and poignantly) when a boy (struggling either to doff his pants or don a condom) trips over a doll’s house. “My mother gave that to me!” cries out a half-dressed girl before the mom sitting knowingly downstairs calls up, “And I got that from her grandmother!” Meanwhile, the boy, in his inexperience (innocence?) comically thinks he’s merely stubbed a toe.
But no one ever claimed it was misogynistic to note how women can be selfish whether or not they’re under incomprehensible strain. Nor is it sexist that this film peers out into the world with a male gaze. The Pieta is the archetypical image in western culture of Woman cradling the broken body of Man. It portrays the fundamental unselfishness of the female in an image our culture has not yet made a cliche, and this image may also be called a “climax” in this story.
And maybe, after all, this flick does end with a cliche as a boat beats out into the ocean of the future where nothing is certain or preordained except for when we peek backward into the past. But maybe the ending is not a cliche at all if cliches are only truths presented in thoughtless, superficial, and hackneyed ways.