I was in Savannah, Georgia, the first time I remember almost killing one of my kids. My wife and I were fussing over a map on the sidewalk, and my middle kid had toddled into the street. A stranger grabbed the child’s arm and pulled him back right before a car sped past.
I thanked the nice old man, my face pale. Someone else’s attention had saved my kid’s life; it was one of those acts of everyday heroism that is rarely rewarded.
I have five children and could tell you a dozen such stories. All good parents remember at least a few times they almost killed their children. In my experience, the parents who could learn the most from those incidents would likely claim it has never happened to them.
All the good parents I know are afraid they are terrible parents. All the parents that scare me are sure they are good parents and have little to learn.
After the birth of my fifth kid, I was so exhausted that I fell asleep in the bathroom and walked over to the bedroom to take a quick nap, wondering if I had removed a toy that was a choking hazard from the play area of the younger children. I was sure I had, although it was more likely that I was willing to convince myself in order to get a few moments’ rest. I woke up in a panic, scared to find an unmoving body. Everything was fine.
It all tends to work out, despite your fears and near-misses, but that’s not always going to be the case. There are ways to address that fear that are interesting, and there are characters who could bring these realities to life.
Manchester by the Sea fails to do either, and be advised that we’re going to probably head into spoiler territory here.
The guilt of the white guy
Manchester by the Sea is about a lot of things, including white male privilege and how toxic masculinity tears men apart, but the fulcrum of the story is the death of Lee’s children. Lee is the film’s main character, played by Casey Affleck.
He has friends over for a night of partying. They leave late at night, after consuming masses of beer and some harder drugs. Lee staggers to the store drunk to get more beer, and convinces himself along the way that he put the fire grate over the fireplace — in order to keep going and buy his alcohol. He had not. The house burns down, and his three children die. His wife survives, but their marriage doesn’t.
You learn all this halfway through the movie, right when you’re trying to figure out why this guy is so busy picking meaningless bar fights and reacting in dispassionate anger to the tenants of the buildings in which he works as a handyman.
The police react to the death of his children and the revelation that there was cocaine in the basement by saying it was an accident, and he is free to go. Consumed with guilt and having no place to put his rage, he grabs a police officer’s gun and tries to kill himself.
No one will punish Lee for what he did, for what he knows he did. So he spends the rest of the movie punishing himself. But the only way he knows how to punish himself is by hurting others. So he fights in bars. He pushes people away. He takes a job that underpays him while he does passable work, to the point where he can’t even get fired. His rock bottom is a modest living in a small basement room.
There is only so far he can fall, even when trying this hard. We often talk about the glass ceiling when it comes to women and minorities in the workplace only rising so far, but we rarely talk about the concrete floor that keeps white, straight men from falling all way down. That’s the floor on which Lee lives throughout the film.
Everyone is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt; the movie even includes a scene of queasy intensity as his ex-wife tries to apologize to him. Lee doesn’t change throughout the movie; he doesn’t learn or grow up. He’s burning in relative comfort, but he manages to rid himself of his one responsibility to the world before the credits roll.
“I can’t beat this,” he says at what could be considered the film’s climax, and he’s right. He’s emotionally unequipped to ever move forward, and too scared to ask for help or even examine what he’s feeling or why.
Toxic masculinity keeps him from ever accepting help, or trying to find anything in himself that’s worth saving. So he blackens his own soul, slowly and surely, assuming that this reaction is the only way out. It’s a comfortable way to torture yourself while doing even more harm to those who care about you. Many of you probably know a man in your life who has reacted to this way to tragedy, or to his own abusive upbringing. Many of you may be men going through this yourself.
Toxic masculinity is a way of defining the narrow ways men are allowed to deal with their feelings and the world around them. We are socialized to be stoic, to react with violence and to see vulnerability as weakness. Emotions are something you keep inside yourself, rather than express or work through in a healthy way.
It’s worth noting that Casey Affleck’s personal issues have overshadowed much of the film’s success. The actor has been accused of sexual assault, and settled cases out of court for undisclosed sums. He has been media-trained to deal with questions about the situation in the rare times they come up in interviews.
His alleged misconduct has not done much, if anything, to hurt his career. People in his situation are allowed to put certain things behind them by society and move on. Affleck, unlike the character he plays in Manchester by the Sea, seems to have made the decision to do just that.
This year he won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Lee in the film.
Manchester by the Sea only works due to class status
Manchester by the Sea is universal in that every parent has come close to killing their children through an accident or momentary act of negligence. But the film is particularly pointed in how it focuses with such laser-like intensity on the reactions of a single white man to multiple forms of loss throughout the movie.
The film’s antagonist is Lee’s own self-facing anger and pain, despite the myriad of friends and family who try to help and the outlets available to him to work through his own misery. He accepts none of it.
There are no other stakes in the film except Lee’s possible redemption. He is not worried about losing his job or finding another. He has enough food to eat. He solves a problem by selling his brother’s expensive shotguns to buy a new motor for a fully paid fishing boat. The house is also paid off.
The film tries to sell itself as a blue-collar melodrama in many ways, but anyone who has grown up actually poor will only see the relatively clean houses, the newish microwaves and functional cars.
The young man in the film plays hockey, which requires a lot of equipment and the use of a skating rink, and he also plays in a band where every other kid brings their own instrument. The police assume Lee’s innocence. A long illness ends with death, but no one worries about the cost of the hospital bill or burial. These folks are doing OK for themselves.
The real world never has to intrude on Lee’s pain or his reaction to it. He is a completely self-contained, Casey Affleck-shaped ball of self-hatred. There is no worry he has to go to work the next day, or continue to feed his other children. Like most movies that center around white men in pain, he is allowed to exist purely as a means of his own self-expression.
He doesn’t have to react to the world after the tragic events of his past; the world has to react to him. And it overwhelmingly tries to help, only for him to ignore or refuse any of that support. His own suffering is the most important thing in his life.
He did a terrible thing, but it’s something that many parents can relate to, at least in part. There may not have been drinking involved in our situations, but we have all at one time or another rolled the dice and come out ahead. He did not. His reaction to those circumstances, and the way the movie frames it, is overwhelmingly selfish and causes more hurt than necessary.
“Men are terrifying creatures with an increasingly documented habit of killing women, gay men, animals and other men they don’t like,” Christos Reid wrote in a post called “Men Are Dying Because They Can’t Talk.” “But we need to start documenting the fact that there’s a 24 percent chance that death for a young man in England and Wales will come at his own hand.”
Lee’s failed suicide attempt is never repeated in the film, but the statistics involved with male suicide are just more evidence of the disease that Manchester by the Sea doesn’t seem interested in naming while showing so many of its symptoms.
Lee is a victim of toxic masculinity and, arguably, his own privilege more than anything else. Manchester by the Sea’s most glaring fault is that it wastes an opportunity to look at the situation critically rather than through a flat lens that seems to state that this is just how things are. It’s a sad-white-guy movie in an industry that’s drowning in them, and Affleck’s own privilege in dealing with his alleged assault underlines the issues with the film in a way that’s hard to ignore.
Every parent knows the fear of a near-miss when it comes to the health or even the life of their child or children, but Manchester by the Sea marries that fear with a well-written meditation on the dangers of masculinity closing men off from their own feelings or experiences.
It tackles two common but under-discussed issues in society without finding anything interesting to say about either, becoming a glass shell of a movie that looks good, seems more important than it is and ultimately may have won an abusive man one of the most prestigious awards in film, for so ably personifying everything terrifying about a culture of emotionally broken men in America.