Manchester by the Sea

February 10 2017, 1 Comments

Most dramas use emotion as a device to connect with the audience. Some emotional event – a calamity or crisis – elicits an emotional response in the audience and pulls them into the story. When the storyteller’s use of emotion is heavy handed the tale descends into melodrama. When it’s used well though, the story is elevated into something that really resonates with the audience: it becomes heart-warming, inspirational or even revelatory.

Kevin Lonergan’s film, Manchester by the Sea, doesn’t use emotion as a device. Instead, emotion is the subject of the movie around which the story exists. The story doesn’t unfold in a linear way. Instead there are numerous jumps back and forth in time. This makes the film less a narrative than an observation of the emotions within the story: allowing us to examine them from all angles – from before and after the tragedy, and then back around to before.

The main emotion being studied here of course, is grief. A man’s older brother dies, and he is forced to take care of the brother’s teenage son (whose mother has abandoned him). Normally this would be all that was required to setup a drama about characters dealing with grief. But at the heart of this film lies something far heavier.

One of the triumphs of Lonergan’s direction in this film is how he manages to make us not only feel this grief as a mere drama would, but to show the grief inside every one of the characters in the story. He doesn’t resort to dramatic outpourings from his actors to tell you about the grief. Instead he provides quiet moments throughout the film where we’re able to just observe the heaviness of that emotion weighing down the characters. Sometimes in the awkward silence when one character doesn’t quite know what to say to comfort another. Sometimes events simply occur on screen without us being able to hear what the characters are saying. But we know what they’re talking about and we can feel their grief pulling at us.

Through all this sadness we follow Lee Chandler (played by Casey Affleck). A lot has been written already about Affleck’s performance in this movie and the hype is justified: it is a masterful piece of acting. But plenty still needs to be said about the great character Lonergan’s screenplay provides for Affleck to portray. In most dramas the lead character is confronted by some great challenge or event and how he/she changes or improves themselves to overcome this challenge leads to success in the story.

But Affleck’s character is someone so heavily weighed down by the burden of grief that there is simply no way for him to overcome it. He has suffered a loss greater than any man should ever have to bear and his triumph is not in getting over that grief but simply to be able to continue to exist even with it. Lee Chandler at the centre of all this sadness seems like a black hole from which no light can escape.

Coincidentally I watched Scorsese’s Taxi Driver again this week before seeing Manchester. In that classic film, another character is gradually filled up by dark emotions as the story progresses. Robert De Niro’s acting expertly reveals the slowly growing insanity inside his character’s head and eventually allows all those emotions to erupt out of him in one of Scorsese’s trademark violent scenes.

In Manchester by the Sea however, the lead character must bury his emotion deep within just to be able to function in daily life. The mastery of Affleck’s performance in this film is that he can convey the full measure of the grief trapped inside Lee Chandler but at the same time remain almost completely impassive on screen. Only in a brilliant scene with Michelle Williams late in the film does he ever reveal how much effort it is taking for him to keep it all bottled up. “There’s nothing there. There’s nothing there,” he tries to convince her. But at that moment we know, it’s all in there.

Williams’s performance too is considerable in this film. She doesn’t spend much time on screen but the scenes she’s in are some of the film’s most powerful. She is the perfect counterfoil to Affleck’s stoicism: raw pain and despair laid bare.

Lonergan doesn’t waste any of the smaller roles in this film either. Plenty of veteran actors pop up as minor but compelling characters, like the brief appearances by Tate Donovan and Matthew Broderick and Kyle Chandler’s role as Lee’s older brother Joe. Every one of these actors are used so well that it makes me sad that after making his debut in film over 17 years ago, this movie is only Kenneth Lonergan’s third film as director.

Manchester by the Sea is a phenomenal achievement. It is boldly unconventional, and the subject of grief is an extremely heavy one to tackle. That the film avoids sinking under it is due to some exceptional acting performances and Lonergan’s expert direction. There has been a lot of hype surrounding this film prior to the awards season, but most of the praise is fully deserved. This kind of film doesn’t come around often in Hollywood – we should celebrate when one does.

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