Manchester by the Sea: Boring, brooding masculinity saves the day (again)

We’re deep into awards season and Manchester by the Sea is picking up a lot of attention. In particular, Casey Affleck’s performance as protagonist Lee Chandler seems to be garnering career-defining acclaim. Unfortunately, the film is a two hour snoozefest in which a particular kind of masculinity – the troubled, brooding kind – is presented again and again and again as deeply heroic and moving. This sort of representation of masculinity doesn’t have to be problematic. Regrettably, in Manchester by the Sea, it is accompanied by a one-dimensional depiction of women in fifty shades of negativity, which ultimately makes for a film full of tired and sexist cliches.

The tortured lone wolf of Hollywood cool

Lee’s characterisation runs throughout the film with incredible clarity. First and foremost, he’s a man. This is evidenced initially by a slick sequence of shots that show us his life as a janitor. Lee gets down and dirty with a toilet plunger, carries lots of furniture on his broad shoulders and, naturally, is the object of sexual attention from his female clients. The thing is, Lee’s more than just a man – he’s a man with a tortured past. You can tell this by the manner in which he looks into the vague distance, gets himself into unprovoked bar fights and avoids women’s sexual overtures. What bugs me about this sort of masculinity is that it’s so fucking boring. We’ve seen lone wolves like this countless times. From Harry Callahan through Snake Plissken to John McClane, Hollywood loves a man with dead/estranged family who goes solo.

Admittedly, the characters that I’ve just cited appear in action flicks, rather than Sundance-debuting dramas. Nonetheless, Lee is still the same masculine archetype, walking alone into the sunset, hero-status traced across his forehead. Clearly, there is a market for this kind of character and that’s fine. Equally, I’m sure that there are white working-class men, in Boston and beyond, who will relate to Lee’s masculinity. I don’t seek to delegitimise that. My big issue with Manchester by the Sea is that it perpetuates gender stereotypes with no recourse to critique. You see, regardless of whether Lee is successful or not in his relationship with his dead brother’s son Patrick, he’s no hero. In fact, his intoxicated negligence caused the death of his three infant children, in a way that is never satisfactorily resolved.

Alcoholic, hysterical, sexual playthings

In the final third of the film, there’s a scene between Lee and his ex-wife Randi that provides him with the opportunity to take responsibility for his fiery past actions. Unbelievably, the scene turns into an abhorrent man-as-victim monologue where Randi repeatedly apologises for saying harmful things to Lee. Let’s step back for a moment. Lee got drunk, smoked a spliff, did some nosebag and burned down his family home. But he’s the one who was wronged here? Cool.

Indeed, Lee constantly bitches about Randi elsewhere as a miserable, annoying ex-wife. The other women in the film don’t fare much better. There’s Elise, Lee’s brother’s ex-wife, who is an alcoholic turned emotional wreck. There’s Lee’s aunt, a hysterical woman who has to walk out of a hospital appointment. There’s Silvie, one of Patrick’s girlfriends, who is bossy and imposing. There’s also Sandy, Patrick’s second girlfriend, who exists primarily as a potential sexual conquest. Of course, it’s entirely possible and real that women do live and act in these ways. However, none of these characters are given any space to develop beyond their assigned sexist cliches. And the only women that are given any sort of positive treatment – Dr. Bethany and Jill (Sandy’s mum) – probably only have around a minute’s screen time between them.

A film for our times?

All of this leaves a sour taste. By all means, represent men in an unimaginative way. But at least give women an equitable representation that does justice to their equally multidimensional personalities. I mean, perhaps I’m on the wrong side of history here. We live in an age where obnoxious white supremacists masquerading as ‘the alt-right’ run boycott campaigns against Star Wars films because they’ve cast women and people of colour in leading roles. I don’t know, maybe it’s in the Anglo-American zeitgest to praise a film that treats women so reductively? Obviously, this is bullshit. If you want a real film about grief and masculinity that credibly represents its female characters, check out Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.

A final thought. One of the scenes in Manchester by the Sea involves Lee giving a statement to police where he discloses cannabis and cocaine use, to no moral or criminal consequence. While watching this, I couldn’t help thinking about the incarceration disparity for drug offences in the US, where African-Americans are ten times more likely to be sent to prison for such offences.

Did you hear about the historic rape allegations that were brought against Nate Parker, the black director of race period drama The Birth of a Nation? Probably. Did you hear about the historic sexual harrassment allegations that were brought against star of Manchester by the Sea, Casey Affleck? Probably not.

This truly is a film for our times.

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