If one is interested in a counterpoint to the received wisdom about the plight of the white working class, look no further than to Manchester by the Sea, the finest film I have seen this year.
The usual narrative is that the white working class is in decline because of economic stress. But Manchester by the Sea focuses on its spiritual causes. It is a post-Christian film in two senses. Its structure returns to greatest pagan art form—Greek tragedy—and its content concerns the spiritual void left in places like New England by the decline of Christianity—a decline that also undermines one of the sources for self-discipline needed for flourishing in a republic.
The protagonist of the story, Lee Chandler, is pursued by furies—the Eumenides of Greek tragedy– because of a negligent act shown in a flashback by which he destroyed his young family. Chief among the furies was his now ex-wife who said terrible things about him in the aftermath. Many people in Manchester are furies as well: they don’t want him around and he has left his ancestral home to work in Boston. But the greatest furies are the demons within his own mind. Not only do others not forgive him, he cannot find forgiveness himself.
Like many great works of literature, the impetus for the story is a journey—an extended trip by Lee back to Manchester, because his brother has died and he has unexpectedly become the guardian of his nephew, Patrick. He tries to beat the demons and look after his nephew, but ultimately he cannot do so and has Patrick adopted by a friend of his brother.
Money is not the problem here. His brother is well enough off to make provision for his son and even for Lee’s transition to guardianship. Despite the modesty of his job as a custodian even Lee never lacks money for the pleasures of life that no longer give him pleasure. But what is lacking is a framework for living and forgiving. The movie most powerfully captures this absence in the Catholic funeral for Joe. The service is shown almost entirely without sound, because for Lee and his family the voice of God is absent. The only break in the silence is Patrick’s cellphone ringing.
Patrick is moving toward the life of moral indiscipline that was his uncle’s tragic flaw. He sleeps with a girl so psychologically immature that she is still emotionally attached to her dollhouse. He curses out his hockey coach. His difficulty with spirituality is revealed by his seemingly greatest concern about his dead father: that his body must remain in a freezer until the ground becomes warm enough to receive him.
The script doesn’t give much hope of a genuine religious revival providing a renewed framework and discipline. The one believing Christian portrayed is a caricature of one who has been born again. While he has helped Patrick’s mother sober up, he cuts her off from her son.
The film’s greater hope—in my view probably a vain one at least given our social welfare state—is that communities will find ways to coalesce around some of the values that Christianity has deposited in Western society in its long, withdrawing roar. The most moving scene of the film is the one in which Lee’s ex-wife forgives him and begs his forgiveness for her treatment of him. And even though Lee abandons his guardianship, his new project is to try to get his quite bright if aimless nephew to go to college—the place where modern miracles of maturation are supposed to occur.
The critics’ reactions to the film are also striking. Almost no one saw it in terms of the pressing debates about the white working class. The one who did, A.O. Scott of the New York Times, gratuitously trivialized this perspective by noting how much better off are the whites portrayed than African Americans in general. But no major critic I have read even mentions religion. Our elites are so secular that they now miss obvious religious themes in works of art and cannot consider other than crassly material explanations for social problems.