Manchester by the Sea

I try to comment on books or movies I read or see that seem to have some depth to them, or if they provide an insight that I think might be helpful. I watched Manchester by the Sea after having seen some good reviews. I wondered what the fuss was about but didn’t want to shell out the bucks to see it at the theater, so I waited, and sure enough it showed up in the course of time on Netflix or Amazon Prime (can’t remember which).

What the fuss is about is deeply felt loss and its consequences on people – seemingly real people, in richly developed characterization by talented actors. I was put off by the language, but I suppose either the writers were trying to make it more real (because everyone knows that having a potty mouth means emotional depth) or else people in New England really talk like that. I’m not sure which is worse.

Pushing on, I marinated in this for a few days because the movie was emotionally affecting, and yet I couldn’t formulate a point to the movie; not even a conclusion that all is pointless. But I did take note of its depiction of religious belief.

The main characters are the uncle and the nephew.  Those characters’ speech and language is spontaneous, raw, and unfiltered, as they try to engage brutal realities of their existence. Same with many of the characters around them. The emotional edge is sharp as a razor.

But then, well into the movie, the break-neck emotional pace runs into a lake of molasses. Or perhaps more accurately, the emotional tension that is already tamped-down just below the surface is, with these new characters, pushed down even deeper. A superficial and false niceness prevails — gooey icing slathered on a cow-pie. The new characters are the nephew’s heretofore long-estranged mother, and her new husband. The mother has come out of a long period of alcoholic self-destruction, and has married a man the nephew describes as “very Christian.”

If so, he’s not my brand of Christian. His religious self-image makes him imperious, but with an outward show of compassion.  He likes his religion pasteurized and homogenized; free of complications like real people with real needs.  He’s afraid to get his hands dirty. (The part is brilliantly played, by the way, by Matthew Broderick – the antithesis of Ferris Buehler, here.)

The uncle responds to the “very Christian” comment by reassuring his nephew that “we’re Christian, too, you know,” going on to say that Catholic is Christian. We’re to infer that they’re cultural, nominal Catholics, but it obviously has no impact on their interior lives. Just as Matthew Arnold wrote long ago, not about Manchester by the Sea, but Dover by the sea: the world without religion “hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” We may invoke religion, but not God, and when we invoke religion we do so not as if it revealed something true, but rather as a talisman against evil.

But an ineffective talisman. Maybe that’s the movie’s point.

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