MANCHESTER BY THE SEA: A Beautiful Look At Tragedy & How We Cope With It
Manchester by the Sea is a subtle, nuanced story of loss and grief, brought to life through restrained direction and powerful performances.
Manchester by the Sea could have been a complete bummer of a film. Many moments in it will devastate you; it is, perhaps, the most emotionally impactful film of the year. It also could have been a hollow, whimsical tale of self-acceptance (a la Garden State or this year’s The Fundamentals of Caring). Instead, Kenneth Lonergan was able to blend incredible sadness with genuine hilarity, resulting in one of the best films of 2016.
The Weight of Grief
Led by a behemoth performance by Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea is a deep look into the phenomenon of human grief and the ways we cope with it. After learning that his brother (Kyle Chandler) has died from a heart attack (an inevitability his loved ones knew of because of a rare heart condition), Affleck’s Lee Chandler must return to his hometown of Manchester, Massachusetts to make arrangements for his brother’s body, as well as arrangements for the future of his brother’s son, Patrick. Patrick’s mother was driven to severe alcoholism when she found out about her husband’s deadly condition and has been more or less out of Patrick’s life for years.
Lee had a strong relationship with Patrick when his nephew was young, and Lee feels responsible for the now-high schooler in the wake of his father’s death. As the story methodically unfolds, we find out that there is a reason Lee no longer lives in Manchester. An unspeakable tragedy befell him (a tragedy that absolutely cannot be spoiled but will shake you to your core), and it follows him around Manchester like an omnipresent specter. Everything about the town is a reminder of his former life and the event that changed it forever.
However, both Patrick and funeral planning act as an anchor to the quaint ocean town. He must confront his demons, and Kenneth Lonergan knows that doing so isn’t always a depressing slog. That is the beauty of his film. The script is not exploitative in the way that other relentlessly depressing films are. He is a filmmaker that works in shades of gray, acknowledging that levity and humor are some of the best ways to deal with the darkest moments of our past, present, or future.
Addition By Exclusion
Sometimes, it is what you don’t show that makes a story so effective. There are so many Oscar-y scenes begging to be had in the film, but Lonergan contains himself, knowing that the human imagination can venture far beyond the limitations of what can be shown on film. I think back to the worst scene of the mostly good Spotlight as a comparison. You know the scene, the Mark Ruffalo “It could have been you!” scene. It is flashy and it is easy.
In Manchester by the Sea, we are frequently told that Lee’s ex-wife, played brilliantly by Michelle Williams, said some terrible things to him in the past. In a film full of flashback sequences, Lonergan never shows that particular one. He knows that the viewer can conjure up their own scenario that will affect them in a more personal way than whatever he could write and direct. Little details like this make the film so personal and unique.
The most minimalist element of the film, perhaps, is Casey Affleck’s lead performance. He has always churned out great performances and it is nice to see his career fully back on track after his misguided participation in the Joaquin Phoenix faux-documentary, I’m Still Here. His performance in Manchester by the Sea is the type that is usually not appreciated; the incredible things about it are the things that he doesn’t do. In line with Lonergan’s direction, Affleck avoids melodrama. His character repeatedly rejects any opportunity for happiness, but outbursts are limited and small.
Lee does not feel that he deserves to be happy, given his past. He is a janitor who lives in a one room apartment and frequents bars alone, rejecting any flirting the female patrons throw his way. Instead, he revels in frivolous bar fights after a few too many beers. Affleck‘s dry wit in scenes with Lucas Hedges, the young actor who plays Lee’s nephew, is a tremendously well-written illustration of humanity’s propensity for coping with pain through humor. The usual tears of a clown are replaced by the repressed pain of a sarcastic janitor, and the nuance makes it far more interesting.
What separates this film from other films in what I will call the “sadness genre” is its propensity to be funny. Lee and Patrick have a truly hilarious dynamic that provides consistent levity to the bleakness of some of the story elements (another amazing element that adds levity? A completely unexpected cameo that I absolutely will not give away). I cannot praise the script enough for being able to squeeze out the amount of humor it does despite the events at hand.
Lee has an extreme cynicism for the world and his unwillingness to play along with social norms makes for some very awkward, very droll moments. This humor never takes away from the grief that grips the film’s main characters, though. Instead, it adds a level of realism and relatability to the story. There are no gimmicks or cheap jokes to be found here. Lonergan has made sure that everything fits together perfectly, with no seams showing in his impeccable script. The humor and sadness never feel like a blending of genres – they feel like life.
The truth is that not much happens in Manchester by the Sea, but the film is never boring. It is extraordinarily methodical, but that method is executed to near-perfection by Lonergan, who continues to solidify his status as one of the premier filmmakers working today. He keeps the minds of the viewers constantly in gear by making them fill in the blanks he leaves behind. These aren’t plot holes or cliffhangers, but parts of life that we all experience and, thus, must relate to ourselves instead of having that relation forced upon us by the director. It is the epitome of what makes film a unique medium: the ability to tell stories through moving pictures. And, oh, what beautiful pictures they are.
Lonergan has collaborated brilliantly with cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes to reinforce themes of pain, loneliness, sympathy and coping through camera framing and movement. Sound is also used impeccably, as the ocean can be heard throughout the film, a reminder of where we are. This is how Lee must feel every second he is in Manchester. He receives stares and hears whispers no matter where he goes in the town. These are sensations that drive him to drink frequently and have violent outbursts, just like he does at home. He switches between wanting to feel numb to impulsively bringing violence upon himself. His love for his brother keeps him around, however, as he plans the funeral and attempts to fulfill his brother’s last wishes. The funeral planning is ripe with dark humor and frustration.
It really should not be this difficult to bury a body, should it? This frustration acts as a distraction for Lee, as do the antics of his nephew. Patrick is in a (completely crappy) band, has multiple girlfriends, and plays hockey for his high school. The characters are interesting beyond the facts that their family member has died or they are funny. Ironically, a film about death teems with as much life as any other film released in 2016.
Piece By Piece
Life is sometimes hard and tragedy can be hard to overcome. It is even harder when you are around the people and places that remind you of that tragedy. It is hard enough to go back to high school and remember the bully who once pushed you down in the hallway. The pain Lee experiences through his memories is heartbreaking. You want this man to be better but we know, as human beings, that an event like the one we see in Manchester by the Sea can never truly be forgotten.
The commitment that Affleck and Lonergan both have for that idea results in a breathtaking piece of art. There is a great amount of dynamism in the film, which is an achievement in a story with this much melancholy. The decision to consistently give the viewer a break from the bleakness make those moments much more affecting, while also making the film incredibly watchable. The film is long and sad, but it is also breezy and funny. Like the soft tides of the Massachusetts Bay, it ebbs and flows between emotions and narratives. The flashbacks work perfectly, building on each other to form the picture of Lee’s past. One minute you don’t know what is going on, and soon after it threads into the story, at large. It refuses to hold your hand. Lonergan’s direction is crafty and always engaging.
Manchester by the Sea features brilliant work from director Kenneth Lonergan and all of its actors, especially Casey Affleck. It runs the gamut of human emotion to show that people often use humor to cope with tragedy. The story is told intricately and carefully, with the visual styling used so effectively to convey what the story is trying to say.
In the hands of a lesser writer, Manchester by the Sea would grab you with sadness and never let go. Lonergan, however, wants to show the layers of grief, and he knows that the pain lets up every once in awhile. However, at the end of the day, there are some things you just can’t beat.
What did you think of Manchester by the Sea?
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