If you had to pick one word to describe Kenneth Lonergan’s new film, it would have to be “real.”
Manchester by the Sea takes a brief look into the life of a middle-aged man named Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who is racked with tragedy and must return to the site of all his woes—Manchester, Massachusetts—when his brother dies of heart failure and he is left as guardian of his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
The film revolves around grief and how it is dealt with. It is not, however, a film that you need to bring a box of tissues with you to see. There is no build up to a breaking point, there is no sudden, climactic gut-punch that springs open your tear ducts. This movie does not exist to make you cry, it exists to make you face a reality so uncomfortable that wanting to turn away is not only understandable, it is almost expected.
Lonergan’s masterful control of pacing in this film hits you full force, right from the get-go. The entire film is a slow burn, and it eats away at you just as Lee’s past is constantly eating away at him. But it never ends, because there is no escape from tragedy for Lee, and so there is no escape for the viewer, either.
Lee’s traumatic past has turned him into a shell of his former cocky, pleasant self. His sentences are almost always short and to the point, and his eyes are dull and dead. Unlike most heroes in film, Lee’s arc isn’t one that alters him wholly, and that’s the point. By the time the credits roll, he is as you found him—numb and broken.
That’s life. Things happen to people that are too much for them, and no matter how much you want to help them, they can’t always dig their way out.
One of the best scenes in the movie is when this notion is finally confronted by Lee and his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams). The two of them collide in a monumentally emotional sequence, with Randi searching for her former husband in this strange man’s eyes. But he isn’t there, and he can’t return. Lee attempts to articulate this, but his words aren’t there, and she is too distraught to understand him.
Affleck’s performance is Oscar-worthy. He envelops himself with this character, and it is unnerving. He is fastidiously under a boiling control the entire film, never once wavering in his portrayal. To look into Affleck’s eyes in this role is to look at real defeat, real loss, and real despair.
On the other side of things, Patrick is a self-made teenager with two girlfriends who don’t know about one another and a lot of pent-up frustration that stems from things completely separate from his uncle’s issues: he’s never really known his mother (Ellie Teeves), who was a drunk and divorced by his father (Kyle Chandler) when he was just a child; his relationships with his friends and girlfriends; and, of course, the death of his father.
But while Patrick has his moments of despair, they differ mightily from Lee’s. He struggles, but he is young, and he still has the will to fight. He’s sarcastic and quick-witted, and through him comes a lot of the lighter moments in the movie, most of which he shares with his uncle. Patrick is the beacon of hope in this film—he is the one who can still rise above grief and maintain a firm grasp on his own life.
There is a surprising amount of humour littered throughout this masterwork. Jokes here and there, legitimate oddities that will bring a chuckle or two from a viewer’s mouth. But, again, that’s because of how real this film is.
When I say real, I mean stick-a-camera-in-your-room-and-record-the-conversation real.
Each scene lingers too long, and in effect makes everything a tad uncomfortable. Lonergan decides to show you what would happen after a normal scene would usually have cut away to move on to the next important thing. In this film, all of the tiniest moments that seem trivial and awkward are essential to the tone.
It feels as if you are eavesdropping on conversations you shouldn’t be, and this is the way the entire movie flows. The dialogue is not typical Hollywood dialogue. It’s not trying to make you feel something with every word. Instead, the characters talk exactly like real people would, interjecting here and there with random thoughts, often expressing themselves in snippets.
Manchester by the Sea takes place in the winter, and so right from the opening shot the viewer is satiated by cold and loneliness. The entire movie is subtle in its approach; there is nothing that screams at you—not colour, not characters, not tone. What ensues for several minutes, then, are shots of Lee shoveling snow and throwing away trash, again and again and again.
There is only numbness. There is only monotony.
Manchester by the Sea is a brilliant accomplishment and one of the best films of 2016. It is not a film that is for everyone, that’s for sure, and it perhaps somewhat breaks the agreement it set up with the casual viewer via its trailer, which portrays it as a generic-looking—yet fantastic—dramatic piece. And it is, but it is also so much more than that.
There are no flaws to this film. For what it is trying to accomplish, it is a masterpiece in all respects.
Kudos to you, Mr. Lonergan. You created something that all artists strive to create: something real.
(Photo from Awards Daily)