He Shall Feed His Flock: A Christian Reflects on Manchester by the Sea, by Esther O’Reilly

17 Jan

Several New Year’s roundups noted the plethora of faith-friendly films released in 2016, including more than one positive depiction of Christians from heavyweight Hollywood directors. Perhaps the two most notable were Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge and Martin Scorsese’s Silence (if you count the latter’s limited 2016 release). Gibson, drawing from life, and Scorsese, drawing from literature, presented full-bodied Christian characters that demanded to be taken seriously. They were neither caricatures nor cardboard cut-outs, but complex men putting skin in the game for their deepest convictions. Tim Gray at Variety also noted John Hurt’s portrayal of a wise priest in the biopic Jackie. It may seem pathetic to be grateful when Hollywood gives us a priest who is neither a megalomaniac nor a pedophile, but the change is still welcome.

Despite this good news, an effectual Christian presence was lacking in one Best Picture contender, ironically one of the films where it was most sorely needed. I’m speaking about Manchester By the Sea.

To be clear, I don’t deny this film its just deserts. I come to praise Kenneth Lonergan, not to bury him. Manchester By the Sea was my first encounter with one of his films, but it certainly won’t be my last. Much has been written about how his films resemble life. As the viewers, we get the uncomfortable feeling that we are eavesdropping, not taking in a screenplay. He has an unwavering eye for what Evelyn Waugh calls “those needle-hooks of experience which catch the attention when larger matters are at stake”: groceries clutched tightly in the face of unspeakable horrors, gurney wheels that mercilessly refuse to cooperate, frozen chicken spilling out of an over-stuffed freezer.

Yet there’s a beauty in Manchester’s bleakness. There’s even, against all odds, some laugh-out-loud humor. And for all that they suffer, I don’t think it’s fair to say Lonergan hates his characters. A writer who hated his characters couldn’t have crafted such moments of exquisite tenderness between them as Lonergan does, fleeting as these moments are. There’s the moment early in the film when the protagonist, Lee, sees his big brother’s body in the morgue and bends down to rest his head on that shoulder one last time. Through gradual bits of flashback, we see how the brother anchored him, pursuing him in his darkest hour and offering the help he didn’t know he needed.

In another scene, featured in the trailer, teenaged Patrick has a delayed breakdown over the death of his father. Lee, his uncle, is attempting to control him as he hyper-ventilates. In context, we learn Patrick is disturbed that his father is going to be kept on ice until the ground is thawed enough to bury him. After handling the sudden loss fairly well for some days, he finally panics upon opening the freezer to be greeted by an avalanche of chicken. When he locks the door to his room and refuses to let Lee in, Lee lets himself in, in forceful fashion. But he doesn’t rush to offer comfort. He’s calm, rational and rather blunt: “Look, if you’re going to freak out every time you see a frozen chicken, I think we should take you to the hospital.”

Patrick does calm down, but Lee has set up camp near his bedside, with no plans to leave any time soon. Because Lee, too, knows what it is to grieve, better than anyone. He remembers what he’s contemplated, what he would have carried through had luck or providence not blocked the path. He remembers the night that cruelly left him whole in body, yet forever maimed in spirit. And still, he is here. He is present. Long after Patrick is asleep, he sits beside him, wakeful and watching.

However, viewers seeking more closure than a few grace notes like this can provide will be left disappointed when the credits roll. In and of itself, this would not be enough to keep the film from greatness. An honest writer must follow where his characters lead. Indeed, once we truly understand Lee—who he is, what he’s done, what he’s lost—we are hard pressed to imagine what closure would even look like. This is most devastatingly realized in a scene with his ex-wife that at once surpasses and utterly overturns all expectations.

So far, so fair. Yet when we move outward to survey the characters on the periphery of Lee’s drama, we run into trouble. The warmth and care we see in Lonergan’s crafting of Lee and Patrick is replaced by laziness and cynicism when it comes to Patrick’s estranged mother and new stepfather. We learn barely anything about this woman’s past, except that she was a druggie who abandoned her family when Patrick was small. The first time we even see her face is in the present day, when she reaches out to tell Patrick she’s re-married and wants a reunion. Clearly, a dramatic change has been wrought: She’s clothed and in her right mind, sober and hostessly, albeit exceedingly nervous. But whatever her story is, Lonergan seems uninterested in telling it. We gather she’s converted to Christianity, judging by the bucolic picture of Jesus over the mantel and the fact that her blandly affable husband says grace. Patrick says “Amen” too quietly for her to hear, prompting her to assure him that he doesn’t have to say Amen. She makes a few more similarly awkward stabs before suddenly leaving the room, shortly followed by her husband. Patrick remains polite and sympathetic throughout, but as he sums it up later to Lee, “She was pretty nervous…he was very Christian.” And that’s it. Lonergan’s done here. Well, actually, not quite done. The stepfather gets in one last word with a long, cloying e-mail appointing himself the gate-keeper for all future interactions between Patrick and his mom.

This is well beneath a writer of Lonergan’s caliber, and it prompts the viewer to imagine what could have been. I would have respected the choice simply to avoid all mention of Christianity. I acknowledge that it would be difficult to fold it into this story in a human, convincing way. Lee replies to Patrick’s summing-up by pointing out that Catholics are Christians too. Yet they are Catholic in name only. It’s impossible to imagine the tightly wound, anti-social Lee as a practicing church-goer. How could a priest even find a way of entry into this world? Yet it says something significant that Lonergan went out of his way to mention Christianity just so he could dismiss “born-again types” as bumbling and helpless. It’s not that he couldn’t have done Christianity justice. It’s that he didn’t want to.

And yet, Lonergan does not appear unmoved by every Christian artifact. A fragment remains in the soundtrack choice for the brother’s funeral: the magnificent “He Shall Feed His Flock,” from Handel’s Messiah. Granted, this is a standard choice for funerals, yet it’s not clear that it’s actually being performed as special music. The libretto is based on one of the most hopeful of all biblical passages: “Come unto him all ye that labor/Come until him that are heavy laden/And he will give you rest.” Is this choice a mere formality for the scene? In Lonergan’s mind, is it no more comforting than the Kinkadian Good Shepherd over the mantel? Or is it saying something more? In the aching beauty of Handel’s melody, do we detect an answer to the ache this little flock shares? Perhaps he himself couldn’t say. Yet it shares the classical, operatic tone struck by the soundtrack as a whole, which dignifies and gives voice to the characters’ unutterable groanings.

Even more intriguing is a cutting-room floor snippet gleaned from the original script (pp. 69-70), in which Lee flashes back to the funeral that marks the moment in time when his world started unraveling. We see mourners gathered and hear the priest’s shaky voice reading from Psalms: “O rescue me, O God, my helper.” Back to Lee, in the present day, alone, whispering: “Rescue me.”

Based on interviews he’s given about the story, this much may be said in Lonergan’s defense: He respects grief and death enough to understand that pious secular platitudes cannot withstand them. In a New Yorker interview, he adopts a mimicking tone, “It’s fine your mother’s dying, it’s no problem, it’s all part of the circle of life.” “What f—ing circle of life?” he imagines replying. “It all goes in one direction–toward death.” Yes. But also, no. Lonergan recognizes fool’s gold when he sees it. His fatal mistake is assuming the real thing doesn’t exist.

And what of us? What would we say to Lee Chandler, if we could? How do you bring tidings of comfort and joy to a man who deems himself worthy of nothing but sorrow and pain? Truth is simple, not easy. For now we see through a glass, darkly. For now, we walk in shadowlands. And still, there is one who walks beside us, though we may not always see it. There is one who stands beside his sleeping flock, watching until the break of day.

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