It is no news to say this film flattened me with its anguish. The sadness of the film is its primary melody and its harmonic structure. The acting, cinematography, and narrative structure also are stunning but here I want to comment simply and specifically on the plot’s foreclosure and appeal to religion.
Little moments prepared me for the big confusion. “Is that the Lee Chandler?”* the townspeople ask intermittently in stunned amazement. It led me to surmise (correctly) that Lee (Casey Affleck) is a man marked by a past event. Later, the hockey coach (Tate Donovan) notices a man standing by the rink and the players tell him it’s Patrick’s (Lucas Hedge) uncle, Lee Chandler, but “none of what they say about him is true, Coach; it’s all bullshit.” The film never reveals what ‘they’ say, but I could again surmise that this is a man wearing his own kind of scarlet letter. In a subsequent sequence, Lee pokes around his old town for work. After one short exchange with a man Lee clearly knows from the past, Lee exits and the woman in the office rises sharply: “I don’t ever want that man in here again,” she tells the man. The man nods in appeasement. Geez, I thought; what’s up with her? What’s he done to elicit such a vehement response?
In one memorable scene, after viewers fully know about the past tragedy, Lee’s ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams) draws out the matrix of event and blame without ever leaving the arena of implication. They stand on a sidewalk with a brick wall behind them and the baby stroller for Randi’s new baby between them. “I said a lot of terrible things to you,” she acknowledges. The emotional strain between the two is palpable, and yet the essence of those “terrible things” remains speculative, and the town’s basic disposition toward Lee is never fleshed out. (It also is shown not to be totalizing since the mother of one of Lee’s nephew’s two girlfriends clearly flirts with him and seems to want to snare him into domesticity.)
Is the elusiveness just good storytelling? Is it simply supposed that there is no reason to fill up with words what good acting and a careful camera can accomplish? Viewers can say that Lee is marked by tragedy and, well, it’s a small town, and small townsfolk are superstitious and they talk. They push him to exile and his own sense of guilt internalizes and depends that exile to existential proportions. And yet…
When Patrick returns from a lunch with his estranged, alcoholic mother (Gretchen Mol) and her fiancé, Lee probes him for what it was like. “They’re very Christian,” Patrick responds. Lee drives. Then he turns his head toward Patrick and says, “You know we’re Christian, too.” “Yea,” says Patrick. “I know.”
But I don’t. The exchange has no empirical correlation to anything in the film and no affective intensity between these men. I can accept the plot’s elusiveness and I can accept the marginalization of faith to a recovering addict, but it’s hard to wrap my head around Lee’s faith declaration, his insistent claiming of faith even though he is the most parched, faithless, and lifeless person in the film. Does the declaration assert the impotence of faith? Surely not.
Faith provides community, balm, resources, forgiveness, and redemption. Faith does not and cannot eradicate pain or assure a life without remorse or guilt, but it can assure you that you are forgiven, and loved. Also, and weirdly, we see faith working in Patrick’s mother—we see her in attempted recovery, in a stable relationship, in a home signaling bourgeois comforts and status. We see her facing down the failures of the past with the ballast of faith, and even though she fails (and the lunch fails), the declaration of faith rings true.
But with Lee? No. If he is Christian (or any faith orientation at all), Lee would not be beat by the tragedy of his past. The best I can suppose is that Lee keeps that door open for Patrick, even as it remains tightly bolted to himself.
For another view on the Christianity in this film, I very much appreciate Chris Barnett’s (Villanova) piece.
*I saw this film once, about 2 weeks ago. I cite the film from memory and could well be misremembering. I apologize in advance and am open to corrections.