film analysis & video essays

Reviews & Analysis

Kenneth Lonergan's Masculine Melodrama

I’ll start by copping to the fact that calling a movie a “masculine melodrama” is an outright contradiction. Melodramas, by very definition, exist beneath hierarchical feminine stereotypes; in other words, the elements that define a film as a melodrama – the sensationalized plot, the characters’ hysteria, the excess of dramatic lighting and color – are characteristics that have, historically, been conflated with the feminine far more frequently than they are with the masculine. Looking at masculinity and femininity as the two poles on a spectrum, most films fall somewhere in the middle, choosing to play in the space between. Other films, like the quintessential Douglas Sirk film All That Heaven Allows, commit strongly to the feminine end of that spectrum. Sirk created some of the best examples of feminine melodrama. Recently, however, there are movies that seek to merge melodrama with the masculine, working to reconcile the divide between these two diametric forces by creating a new genre.

Kenneth Lonergan’s 2016 film Manchester by the Sea is the most recent, fully realized example of this trend. Written off by some as just another depiction of a man struggling with his demons, Manchester struck me as a much more profound and inventive film than it was given credit for. While it may be easy to consider Manchester another example of classic rote drama, Lonergan has created something much different. The film follows Lee Chandler in the aftermath of his brother’s death. The film slowly reveals that his brother’s death is just the latest in a string of tragedies that includes the death of his three children and divorce from his wife. Sound oppressively tragic? That’s because it is. This is a central method Lonergan employs in Manchester; in order merge the masculine with melodramatic, he starts by keying the viewer into the kind of story he’s telling. He does so by using elements one might expect to find in a classic melodrama: an operatic score, a dramatic flashback sequence, an attempted suicide, tense family dynamics, and tragedy – lots of tragedy. In a tamer film, just one of the plot points introduced in Manchester would be enough to sustain an entire film, but he isn’t interested in creating a run-of-the-mill drama. Instead, he layers the tragedies within the film so that they reach a level of near unbelievable bleakness, mirroring the emotional hysteria you would expect to find in a classic melodrama.

Against the backdrop of these tragedies, Lonergan draws the character of Lee Chandler. Unlike characters in melodramas that mimic the hysteria of their situations by openly expressing emotions and making decisions that serve to further the melodrama, Lee exhibits a frustrating distance from any emotional vulnerability. This has been a point of criticism among many of Manchester’s dissenters. But the portrait of masculinity that Lonergan draws feels much more complex, and condemning, than a man simply scared to face his emotions. Lee’s abject emotional repression in the face of repeated emotional trauma is an inversion of what we are accustomed to seeing in these kinds of stories. If the women in melodramas are meant to be hysterical, then the men in these new age melodramas are absurdly repressed, burying their emotions beneath layers of fear; the fear that expressing their emotion will weaken them. Manchester’s Lee Chandler is a phenomenal representation of this character, spending the weeks following his brother’s death compartmentalizing the trauma, pushing away any chance at attachment, and avoiding the grief that drove him away from his home in the first place. The film’s dissenters complained about the length of the film, stating it is far too long for the story its telling, but it’s that very length that allows the audience the time it needs to see Lee endure this trial.

In melodramas, audiences are accustomed to experiencing a moment of emotional release; Manchester denies viewers this release. Instead, in the climactic scene where Lee’s ex-wife Randy attempts to offer him forgiveness, Lee physically cannot get the words out to accept it. Rather than release the emotional floodgates in a way that might resolve the tension, Lonergan makes the choice for Lee to retreat deeper inside himself, denying himself the forgiveness he so desperately needs. In the following scenes, we see Lee instigate physical and emotional punishments – he gets drunk and starts a fight in a bar, one that leaves him bleeding and bruised. He dreams of his daughters, still alive, asking “Can’t you see we’re burning?” Then Lee tells Patrick, his dead brother’s son, that he won’t be Patrick’s guardian. This is the last and perhaps greatest tragedy contained in Manchester; one man’s outright inability to accept love and forgiveness, even when there is so much readily available.  

Manchester’s critical portrayal of masculinity is not one commonly depicted in movies. It’s condemning of the constraints of masculinity in a far different way than, say, Scorsese has portrayed the subject throughout his career. Unlike the use of bloody violence in Scorsese’s films, Lonergan turns to emotional violence as a way of criticizing masculinity. In other words: he uses melodrama. But in a melodrama defined by masculinity, the customary emotional release is stifled by the man’s fear of vulnerability. Just as typical melodramas intentionally sensationalize emotions as a way of drawing an emotional response from the audience, the male melodrama commits to a portrayal of masculinity that is hyperbolic to the point of frustration for the audience; Lee’s scene with Randy is an encapsulated demonstration of this. This is a fascinating dichotomy because both forms of melodrama – classic and revised - evoke similar feelings from the audience: frustration. Both the excess and dearth of emotion ultimately creates more issues than it solves. When Manchester concludes, Lee is no closer to accepting forgiveness for the blame he feels. His static development over the course of the film, while understandably frustrating to the viewer – is a crucial arc in and of itself. Grief is anything but simple or singular and Lonergan’s inversion of the classic melodrama does an incredible job of depicting how utterly destructive grief can be when it comes head to head with masculinity.

Aaron Locke