Why Hollywood is ready for subtle storytelling at last. Part 2: MANCHESTER BY THE SEA’s complex Protagonist
We delve into what MANCHESTER BY THE SEA storytelling and narrative techniques were implemented to make this film a subtle success.
Spoilers alert… this article will discuss the outcomes of the story in order to demonstrate how and why it works.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA tells the story of a withdrawn and passive protagonist, Lee Chandler, portrayed by Casey Affleck. The writer/director Kenneth Lonergan deliberately creates a narrative in which the protagonist resists positive growth and development. This is an important rejection on mainstream Hollywood storytelling gurus, who emphasize that change in the protagonist needs to be the driving force of the narrative – that the protagonist must strive towards a personal goal to earn our empathy as an audience. But it certainly isn’t, in the Manchester by the Sea storytelling!
In fact, this protagonist is so set against positive growth, that when presented with attractive women hitting on him, he doesn’t even acknowledge their advances, and starts fights with random guys instead at whatever bar he’s getting drunk at. It’s hard to imagine a writer rejecting the mantra of ‘positive character growth’ more vividly. The driving force of the story is Lee unwillingly forced to become a father figure again, when his brother dies and he is made custodian for his nephew. Normally, this would form the platform for a feel-good movie. Not here – Lee never willingly ‘accepts the call to action’, however many opportunities the story gives him.
It is a long time before the audience is given a reason for why Lee has become so averse to happiness and positive growth. We learn that he (accidentally) started a fire which killed his children. We even see his estranged wife moving on – she is now pregnant to her new partner. At the climax, she even tries to help Lee move on, but his decision is expressed by the line “I can’t beat it.”
Lee lets his demons, guilt and rage at himself consume him. The nearest thing we get to personal and positive progress is his final decision to move away from his nephew again, but this time to get a sofa-bed in his new apartment, so that his nephew can visit sometimes. A feel-good movie would have played out this story arc in a completely different way, and would have provided many more notable plot developments along the way to force and test his progress.
In conventional stories about men accepting forms of custody over children – such as THREE MEN AND A BABY or ABOUT A BOY (or even the upcoming adaptation of Stephen King book, THE DARK TOWER film), the presence of a child and unexpected custodianship creates a catalyst for transforming a progressive character into an empathetic protagonist. Lee, in a similar scenario, never adjusts to it and fails to find his own catalyst for personal growth – the sort of plot convention that we would normally expect to find in a screen telling of a story like this.
The subtlety of storytelling carries this film. Whereas Affleck’s performance as Lee is praised for portraying seething rage below his character’s actions, in practical terms all of these behaviors are mostly shown implicitly not explicitly. And they are played out in unexpected scenarios, rather than directly confronting issue head on like conventional stories would do.
Acclaim for MANCHESTER & criticism from some audiences against it are two sides of same coin – mainstream audience members may find this film slow and actionless compared to what they are used to, but these are the same qualities that critics and the Academy have been keen to back. Cinema has been dominated by so much heavy-handed, on-the-nose storytelling, for example in the endless succession of superhero movies, that it has left critics and pros hungry for a new, realistic, refreshing approach to storytelling, and that is something MANCHESTER BY THE SEA provides.
Next up – The ARRIVAL of subtlety in sci-fi!
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