(Manchester by the Sea, 2017)
An uncle takes responsibility of his nephew after the boy’s father dies.
By Joseph McFarlane
Manchester by the Sea bottles bleak social interaction in gorgeous yet humble cinematography. Some of its moments are excruciatingly tragic, a particular mess or sincerely comical – all in the masterful exploratory sense of film-making. Agreed emotions or conflicting ones make Manchester by the Sea’s scenes more compelling thanks to, much like reality, their unpredictable nature. Characters will talk over others when they are annoyed, panicked, and uncomfortable. When they scatter-talk you have to wait a moment or two for the confusion to die down. Manchester by the Sea, as a story, is not afraid to show you rotating sides and make you understand them, and, then, make you deal with them. A character’s logic never overshoots the narrative – as people, they are not massively complex, in fact, they will differ on opinions in easy to understand situations. What is interesting is that the story pays special attention to the character’s act of making the other understand their point, even if other already does. Drama comes from the confusion of everything, and it is damned effecting.
Judging from the general tone the trailer implies, you would be delighted to discover that Manchester by the Sea has an unexpected abundance of comedy. The comedy is a welcome and necessary alleviation from its general icy and gaunt tone. A lot of chatter about the film will likely send unappetising signals to a fair few casual audience members; the film community has continually hyped this as “Oscar bait”, and while addressing this point is a valid one, you will surely find that most people consider Manchester By The Sea as reasonably approachable. Granted, it is still quite depressing, but there is charm to be found and this distinctive type of humour will carry you through and between some of the more emotionally exhausting times. There are a lot of films with a similar tone to Manchester By The Sea – Synecdoche, New York (2008) being a particular favourite bleak-toned drama of mine, a worthwhile neighbour to the ‘defeated protagonist’ story, if you are looking for one – however, Manchester by the Sea is set apart by its approachable humane quality. There is a reason to have faith in their struggles, a reason to bear with their drudgery, and, for both us and them, comedy is the best way of coping with such uneasy situations.
On a more technically minded level, Manchester By The Sea is remarkably both cinematically objective and subjective. Although the camera remains coldly distant with detached restraint – subjecting us to a distant onlooker, we are rarely permitted the close up – instead, a particularly useful indicator for understanding our relationship with Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is in how the presented narrative unravels itself. Flashbacks are never marked immediately, we only know they are happening when certain logical signposts appear. These flashbacks express the most significant information points of the backstory. As the flashbacks’ cumulative anguish guides us into Lee’s memories, as well as seeing his mental image at that juncture, we are seamlessly positioned directly into his mind. When the most painful memories are withheld by the film until later on, we further understand that these are the moments he would rather not remember, he is pushing them back. To successfully execute this kind of backstory is arduous at the best of times – but Manchester By The Sea’s exposition creates so much insight that it never once feels like a plot mechanic, which it undeniably is – instead, the flow is so dextrously smooth and innately personal that Lonergan’s method benefits our ability to empathise with Lee’s side-story of introspection. This is filmmaking that turns a hand holding formula into a crushing gut punch.
I think Manchester By The Sea is one of those movies that I just love because it is exactly my cup of sombre, melancholy tea. It is a focus minded film that blends a whirlwind of emotions into a direct, controlled and balanced package. To reaffirm the general buzz about the film: Casey Affleck is fantastic, he is the stand out but the entire cast is incredible. The direction, as already commented on, is superb, as is Lonergan’s writing. A handful of marvellous editing choices crept up on me unexpectedly, however, the editing framework as a whole, while moderately strong, was not substantially groundbreaking nor earth shaking – and I think that the same goes for a lot of the other aspects too, and paradoxically, some of the aforementioned praise I have given the film. While there are plenty of shining moments in Manchester By The Sea, and the performances earn an adequate amount of rewatchability, the film drifts politely into a seat among its peers, hardly shaking the still ground it rests on. It is comfortable. Incredible, but comfortable. Perhaps wait for the blu-ray.