By Jack Dignan
I like to write. It’s a craft I’ve enjoyed for nearly all my life, and a career I wish to join one day. I’m not talking film reviewing, although I do enjoy that too, but more so in the sense of telling a story, whether that’s on the page, screen or stage. The art of the narrative and the appropriateness of the dialogue is something that’s difficult to master, and when watching Manchester By The Sea, one of the many thoughts flowing through my head was “I want to write something as masterful as this.” Achieving this level of authenticity is a skill few can master; yet Kenneth Lonergan has done it for the third film in a row.
Our film opens out at sea, a mood-setting piece of music accompanying the craftsmanship on screen. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is seen laughing, participating in friendly banter and good spirited teasing with his nephew Patrick (then, played by Ben O’Brien) and brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). We first meet Lee as a happy man, a smile on his face and a leap with every step. The first thing this film makes clear is that Lee and Patrick have a good relationship, despite Patrick’s humorous honesty towards preferring his dad, Joe. The film’s first cut sees us jump ahead in time, Lee’s personality almost unrecognisable in comparison to what came before. The grief begins.
Lee has become a man consumed by sadness, further propelled by the death of his brother, who appeared to be the only stable relationship in his life since divorcing with Randi (Michelle Williams). Lee is given the task of looking after Joe’s only son, Patrick (now played by Lucas Hedges), a task he wasn’t expecting nor wants. The reluctance he displays towards this guardianship is the backbone of this film, a harrowing depiction of long-lasting grief. This is a film with little to spoil in terms of plot, serving as more of a look at a broken man, struggling to live with the consequences of his actions earlier in life, and the broken teenager he’s forced to look after.
Everybody deals with their emotions in different ways. Nobody’s the same. We all have to find our own path to redemption, even if that redemption is never found. Lee’s dealings with depression are more of an unconventional, but completely justified and well-realised way of accepting the tragedies in his life. When we initially catch up with Lee, before we see any of the flashbacks to earlier stages in his life, he’s in a sort of perplexed state of being. It’s motionless, aggravated and repetitive, living day in and day out with a similar routine and rarely any need to smile. Its not too long before we start to come to terms with just how broken he really is, an endless series of heartbreak bottled down inside of him.
The narrative at hand is non-liner. There is a story to be told, but one with no clear structure, Lonergan instead choosing to delve into the mind of Lee and bringing up the inherent sadness looming within. He doesn’t build up big events, never leading to any sort of massive conclusion or shifting turn of events. There’s rarely any sort of big revelation or unexpected plot twist. Instead, Lonergan showcases life in its purest form, a long string of events in a never-ending cycle of human interaction. It’s the way these characters interact with each other, or their lack of communication skills, that makes this movie what it is. Nothing happens quickly, a deliberate and effective decision that thankfully never bogs the plot down.
This is a film compromised almost entirely of dialogue, but not in the way a stage play deals with it, or even in the way most dialogue-centric movies do either. It’s all about the craft; the way Lonergan evokes a feeling inside that nothing on screen is deliberate. Countless moments throughout feel authentic and improvised, whether it’s Lee slipping on a chunk of ice or his car keys slipping from his grip in a moment of pure rage and frustration. It doesn’t sound like much on the page, but it’s the little moments scattered throughout that just made this film all the better. They helped in crafting the bigger picture at hand.
There’s an important discussion that takes place between Lee and Patrick, and rather than having them simply sit down in a car or return to their kitchen, it happens while Lee is attempting to remember where he parked his car. The dialogue is already adventitious enough, the aggravation and defensiveness of both character’s tone aided through the use of the situation they’re in. These sorts of moments don’t always happen when planned in real life, the conversations you don’t want to have never coming at a convenient location, and Manchester By The Sea gets that. It understands what that means, utilizing it and going for it. Every single moment happens in the utmost perfect way.
What’s on display here is subtle, moving and frustrating all at the same time, backed up with some serious heartbreak. There’s a scene about halfway through that’s so raw and full of emotion, punching me right in the gut until the tears started to flow. I cried in this film. Oh, and I cried and I cried and I cried. The thing about it is that it’s never just one scene that put me to tears, although the flashback hit me way too hard, but instead the film is two hours and fifteen minutes of constant emotion. It hits you with its relentless sadness, bringing up all sorts of feelings you weren’t expecting. It’s far from a pleasant, happy go lucky film, its conclusion not at all what you’re expecting, but it’s brilliant in its evocative realism and dire understanding of the human condition.
It goes without saying at this point, but Casey Affleck is absolutely stunning. He’s able to go to levels you don’t expect, bringing out a tremendous and deeply moving side to him not present in his previous works. He’s been great before, I’ve been a fan of his work for years, but wow, what he’s able to muster up here is something beyond words. Affleck’s performance will knock you off your feet and leave you physically exhausted in the best way possible, however this couldn’t have been done without the supporting cast. Each actor is able to elevate one another, whether it’s Lucas Hedges’s sympathetic yet unlikeable portrayal of a teen struggling in his own, unexplainable way, or Michelle Williams’s stirring and greatly upsetting performance of a distraught woman who lost everything she once held dear.
Manchester By The Sea is a film willing to take the hard way to your heart, one of the more frustrating and depressing films of 2016, yet also one of the more real and brilliant ones too. It’s a film that will have you crying, laughing, screaming and sitting uncomfortably all at the same time, stirring up all sorts of emotions you didn’t think you had, but you welcome anyway.
Like the article? Make sure to spread the word on social media.
You May Also Like: