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March 10, 2017



Seas and Mountains

I read with interest your comparison of Manchester by the Sea with You Can Count on Me and I agree that there are vivid similarities between the two films and their protagonists, both films penned and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. But I would also add that to me Manchester has a lot in common with another story of crippled psyches and the psychology of loss, the one set forth in Ang Lee's 2005 film Brokeback Mountain, written for the screen by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana and based on the story by Annie Proulx. In the Oscar winning screenplays of both Manchester and Brokeback, the main characters -- Casey Affleck's Lee Chandler and Heath Ledger's Ennis del Mar -- are crippled by grief, loss, guilt, and shame and cannot move forward meaningfully in their lives without experiencing disabling bouts of emotional pain. Both characters act out inappropriately and violently, push family members away when they get too close, and have difficult and stunted relationships with their estranged wives -- both played as it happens, in Oscar nominated performances, by Michelle Williams.

Both protagonists have strikingly similar issues involving identity and how one appears to others -- sometimes referred to as the idea of "the looking-glass self." In a memorable scene in Brokeback Ennis tells his friend and lover Jack (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) how when he walks down a crowded street he sometimes "sees" another man looking at him, but then imagines among larger groups of people that "everybody's lookin' at me..." And it's not a good feeling, but instead one that elicits subsequent feelings of guilt and anger. In Manchester, Lee carefully and deliberately confronts in a bar a suspected homosexual who appears to be looking at him from across the room. Lee reacts like a snake, seemingly calm at first but then quick to attack and thrash the looker for some obscure reason or supposed hurt. Both protagonists experience other bursts of violent acting out.

In iconic advertising stills from each movie the protagonists can be seen in cold bleak settings, jacket collars up with hands jammed in jacket pockets, hunched over from the cold. In each film the divorced protagonists receive unwanted romantic attention from women. Photos associated with tragedy play a part in both films: Lee notices with longing photos of his dead children in his brother's bedroom; Ennis tacks a photo of Brokeback Mountain, with its memory of happier days with Jack, onto his wardrobe's door after Jack has been murdered. Clothing plays a part as well: Lee sees and lovingly strokes his dead children's clothing in a drawer; Ennis carefully keeps his shirt on a hanger in his wardrobe, protectively covering one that had been worn by the now dead Jack.

The family situations in the films are similar. Both men are divorced and when their former wives, now remarried, reach out to them the men react abruptly. After an escalating argument with his ex-wife, Ennis storms out of a tense Thanksgiving Day dinner, leaving his family and his wife's new one to pick up the emotional pieces of his life he is too angry and crippled to deal with. When Lee's former wife tries to say she forgives him for the deaths of their children in the fire that he caused, Lee is so overcome with shame and guilt that he cannot even entertain the possibility that she is now willing to forgive him. Ennis pushes away his loving daughter's (played by Kate Mara) sincere efforts to get emotionally closer to him, while Lee initially insists he cannot become his teenage nephew's (played by Lucas Hedges) guardian as specified in his late brother's will, and deliberately tries to distance himself from the boy.

And in a resolution of sorts in each film the protagonists come to embrace their family members in the best way they are able to -- Ennis will eventually agree to walk his daughter down the aisle when she weds, and Lee gradually sees that by reaching out to others he can help care for his nephew in small ways at first with the hope of doing so in more encompassing ways later. 

Could Lonergan have consulted the Brokeback screenplay while writing Manchester? Or was the influence of the earlier screenplay upon him an unconscious one? Hard to say, but the two screenplays have remarkable similarities of both content and tone.

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