Writing Choices – Manchester by the Sea and the Unhappy Ending

Hey 3.5 readers.  Welcome to the first ever Writing Choices column.  Warning, spoilers abound!  Oh wait, the title of this post is a spoiler.  Avert your eyes!

But seriously.  If you haven’t seen this movie, then read no further, unless you don’t care, then feel free.

Manchester by the Sea is by far the most depressing movie I’ve seen this year and quite possibly my lifetime.  It’s a story of pain, suffering, and great loss.  More specifically, the movie reveals a truth that movies often sugarcoat or brush to the side in the name of making the audience happy – when it comes to overcoming loss, people often lose the battle.

Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, a blue collar family man who once had it all.  Nice house, beautiful wife (Michelle Williams as Randi) and adorable little kids.  One night, and remember, SPOILERS, he throws a wild, drug and booze fueled party in his garage until his wife breaks up the fun and tells everyone to get lost because she’s trying to sleep.

After his buddies go home, Lee is too wired too sleep.  He starts a fire in the fireplace, then sits for a spell in a reclining chair, then gets up and goes for a walk to a package store, because even though it’s after three a.m., he decides that the one thing he needs after a night of drunken debauchery is more beer.

When he comes back (SPOILER) his home is ablaze.  Firefighters managed to rescue Randi, but alas, his kids, including a newborn infant, are lost.  He drops to the ground and displays a face of inconsolable loss and later, steals a police officer’s gun from its holster but is tackled before he can shoot himself.

If you’ve seen it, did you think about the “show, don’t tell” angle?  A lot is said here without it being directly said.   Here were two thoughts I had:

#1 – Dude, you’re kind of a shit bag for throwing that party with your wife and kids in the house in the first place.  Second, what’s wrong with you?  Why are you such an alcoholic that you needed to go out for more beer after drinking all night anyway?  Who leaves their kids and wife alone with a fire going in the fireplace?  Maybe if you weren’t so drunk and irresponsible you would have realized this was a bad idea.  I know if I had a wife that looked like Michelle Williams, I’d be in bed next to her instead of walking to the liquor store.

#2 – How one mistake can ruin your life and the lives of others.  OK.  You’re a responsible person.  You’d never throw a wild drinking/drug party.  You’d never leave your family in the middle of the night with a fire in the fireplace going for more beer.  Fine.  Still, no one can be perfect a hundred percent of the time.  I know that in the back of my mind, there’s always a fear I might screw up so badly that it ruins my life or the lives of others.  There’s a voice like that in the heads of most people.  If there isn’t one in yours, there should be?  Maybe you wouldn’t have left for beer, but could you see yourself maybe, oh, I don’t know, falling asleep with the fireplace still lit and then the house goes up anyway?  Are you a perfect driver?  Do you ever worry that you might make one mistake and hit another car?  See?  You might not be a drunk but even so, it is entirely possible that one day you might make a single boneheaded move that destroys everything.  Obviously, keep a watchful eye out to prevent that from happening.  You don’t want to end up like Lee Chandler.

Where was I?  Show don’t tell.  Those two reactions above came to me and yet, they aren’t spelled out.  Instead, we just see Lee living his life of sullen, depressed, lonesome ennui.  Every minute of every day is clearly a nightmare for him.  He obviously thinks about the terrible mistake he made every second of the day.  There’s clearly a voice nagging him inside his mind, “Why did you have to go get beer, dumbass?  Why did you have to light that fire. idiot?”

Had he just stayed in that recliner and fell asleep, he probably would have sniffed the embers that fell out of the fireplace and snuffed them before the house went up.  But for that one decision, he lost his wife and accidentally killed his kids.  He never comes out and says, “Oh I wish this and that…” but if you’re paying attention, you know he must be thinking that.

I have strayed too far from the main point though.  Unhappy endings.  We want to make our audiences happy.  Their lives probably stink, to varying degrees.  At any rate, no one wants more sadness in their lives.  So often, a movie comes together in the end to deliver a happy ending.

Throughout this film, we wonder if that will happen for Lee.  A couple of women express an interest in him.  Will he be able to get over the loss of his ex-wife and find love again?

Moreover, Lee’s brother, Joe, the last family member he was able to rely on and confide in, who didn’t abandon him after he burned his family up accidentally, dies.  Lee returns to Manchester by the Sea, his hometown, a place where he had once built a life but now he has a hard time being there due to bad memories.

Lee is charged with taking care of Joe’s son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).  Patrick is having a rough go of it.  Not only did his father just die but his mother is, well, nuts, and so she’s out of the picture and not able to help.

Together, Lee and Patrick become a super depressing duo.  Lee drinks and occasionally starts bar fights just to feel something.  Patrick has two different girlfriends (unbeknownst to each other) and essentially uses girls at his high school for sex as a coping mechanism.

However, remember show and tell?  We see what Patrick is up to.  The people behind the movie depend upon us to make the connection.  “Oh, this kid is messed up in the head and he’s trying to feel better by having lots of teenage, pre-marital sex, which if anything, will just ruin his life and the lives of the girls he’s getting busy with.”

Throughout the film, we wonder if Lee will see guardianship of his nephew as a second chance – a way to prove that he’s not a complete waste of space.  He failed his children.  Perhaps he will man up and not fail his nephew.  After all, the kid only has a year or two of high school left.  Surely, anyone can put up with something for that long.

At times, Lee shows a few sparks of adulthood.  For the most part he turns a blind eye to Patrick’s shenanigans because he’s too exhausted to fight with the kid.  However, there are times when he grows concerned for the kid’s welfare and does some actual, honest to God parenting, telling Patrick the tough love words he needs to hear.

Further, we wonder if Patrick will ever see the light.  Yes, he lost his father and his mother isn’t much of a help.  Could he maybe realize his uncle has his own demons and step up to the plate?  Could he accept his Uncle as a father figure for the next year or so and not be a sneaky little shit to him?

Essentially, Lee and Patrick are two dudes down on their luck and all they have are each other.  We keep waiting for the moment to come when they will realize this.  We keep waiting for the happy ending…maybe one day, in the not so distant future, there will be a Christmas where a somber Patrick sits by the tree with a new lady friend and welcomes Patrick home from college and Patrick is in a stable, committed relationship with a nice girl.

Yeah.  Don’t hold your breath.  Lee gives up.  It’s too hard to be in Manchester by the Sea. Rather than stay in the house his brother left him and raise his nephew, he talks a family friend and his wife into doing it, then returns to his life as a broken down, incredibly ennui laden janitor.

There might be hope for Patrick.  He chooses the better of the two girls and at least he has a place to live with some kind of a stable adult and he’s going to go to college but for Lee?  Lee is screwed.

We don’t see if but we can imagine Lee back at an apartment complex like the one he was working at when the movie started, plunging toilets, drinking, getting into bar fights and flagellating himself over his lost family until the end of time.

Were you disappointed with the ending?  I was, for about a second.  Then I realized the point.  Life often does not have happy endings.  Movie endings aren’t all that realistic.  Sure, accidentally burning down your house with your family in it while you went out to get beer is the ultimate in psychological trauma that can’t be gotten over.

However, there are lesser traumas.  People often say “get over it and move on” because they have no idea what else to say and they think they are helping.  Truth be told, if you married someone and they divorce you, you may never get over that.  Even if you weren’t married, maybe you’ll always think about that lost boyfriend or girlfriend forever.

Maybe there’s a friendship or a relationship with a family member you lost because of some unkind words you wish you could take back.  Perhaps you made a foolish investment and lost a bundle and now you hate yourself.  Maybe someone you loved died of natural causes and you miss them constantly.

Mental anguish can’t just be alleviated with the snap of a finger.  I know, personally, I’ve been through some shit and after about the tenth time someone told me to, “Get over it and move on” I finally just stopped talking about it.  I’m not over it.  Time helps, not because it erases the bad memories but because the more time passes, the more you’ll forget about what troubles you and get a respite from it but even so…the pain is remembered.  The pain remains.  The sadness can’t be erased completely.

Some situations just don’t wrap up happily.  There can be no happy ending for Lee.  He can’t just go to a shrink and get a pill to help him forget this one.  There will be no new girlfriend for him.  There will be no redemption for him via raising his nephew.  He simply cannot forgive himself for what he has done, and who can blame him?

It’s not a happy ending but it is a realistic one.  Honestly, would a happy ending have come across as real here?  I don’t think so.

YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  In the comments, discuss the writing choices you saw in this movie or alternatively, if you’re a writer, would you ever consider an unhappy ending for one of your stories?  Is it better to provide readers with a realistic yet sad ending instead of an unlikely but happy one?

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