"No one can appreciate what you've been through, and if you really feel you can't take this on then that's your right."
It is odd how sometimes conventional stories can be elevated to higher standards simply in their execution and added details. Take the story of Kenneth Lonergan’s latest film ‘Manchester by the Sea’ for instance, a story a death in a family and the resulting fallout. We have seen this kind of subject tackled many times before, but Lonergam’s boldness of vision, clarity of storytelling and multiple layers of depth turn it into something more profound and infinitely more devastating.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), is a quiet and reserved janitor in Quincy, Massachusetts. One morning he receives a message that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has died of a heart attack. When Lee travels to Joe’s home in Manchester by the Sea for his funeral, he is shocked to discover that he has been named the guardian of Joe’s son Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
Most of the praise directed towards ‘Manchester by the Sea’ has gone to the performances of Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, and with good reason. But one should never underestimate just how rich the material he has to work with is. Kenneth Lonergan’s script is a masterfully detailed and complex study of grief. It piles tension and drama onto characters in such a way that is builds into a crescendo of emotional weight, making it hugely impactful. It helps that rather than reveal each characters backstory and motivations in a linear fashion, Lonergan structures his film so that the audience receives hints of information at a time as we delve into the past. This method ensures that when we finally do discover the terrible truth it casts said character in such a drastically different light that the emotional contrast alone is enough to be impactful.
It all sounds very melodramatic but Lonergan ensures that his characters are written to be so emotionally guarded that they reel the film in and ground it with a sense of realism. Their internal conflict is obvious and when they do open up it only makes the moment all the more powerful as we know how out of character this is for said character. What also helps is that the script trusts the viewer’s intelligence, never pointing out the obvious or shoving them down a certain path. In fact on a few occasions it may take a while to even realise you are watching a flashback as it is never overtly spelled out for you. The viewer has to piece the story together as it moves along and through doing so you draw connections between the grief a character is currently feeling and the trauma they have experienced in their life up to this point.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about the screenplay is just how funny it is. As odd as that sounds I honestly can’t think of another movie that handles grief in such a humorous yet heart-breaking way. It does not simply pile on one soul crushingly sad revelation after another, it gives the characters room to breathe and shows them at their best as well as their lowest points. Humour is known to be a good coping mechanism and it is peppered throughout this story in order to make the characters feel more relatable and down to earth.
It also provides the actors with a little variation in how to present their characters. Rather than one endless cycle of depression each performer is allowed to display a range of emotions and reactions to the stories events. Casey Affleck in particular deserves praise for his performance, one that is a masterclass in internalised acting. He plays Lee as such a subdued and damaged persona that the performance in itself builds up tension regarding what terrible pain he bears, let alone the glares he gets from the community upon returning home. His own self destructive tendencies originate from a terrible sense of guilt, and they reach every aspect of his life from his career and wellbeing to his failed marriage.
Affleck’s role never requires a big moment of flashy melodrama and the film as a whole is all the better for it. It feels as if Affleck and the screenplay created a fully fleshed out, acutely developed and strikingly complex character without ever telling the audience specifically who Lee was. The multiple levels of the story allow Lee’s character to shine through and slowly be pieced together as the story unfolds. You can also piece him together by reading between the lines of his performance, from the way he hunches his shoulders, the movement of his eyes and even when he is doing nothing but reacting to others, it all tells a story, a tragic and unflinchingly harsh story.
The same can be said for almost every actor in the film. Michelle Williams may have a limited time on screen but she uses her time to such a devastating effect. Like her on screen ex-husband she clearly carries a great amount of pain with her, an aspect that is always clear and excruciatingly so. Even in her more casual conversations one can witness the underlying danger of how emotionally unstable she is due to the tragedy that befell her and Lee, destroying their marriage in the process. Kyle Chandler is in a similar position as Joe, wherein his limited screen time does not stop him delivering a compelling performance. After spending just a few minutes with him we can already get a sense that the loss of a man like Joe must have on those closest to him.
The only person I can single out as being a cut below the rest is sadly, Lucas Hedges. That is not to say Hedges is bad and I do feel somewhat guilty about punishing a young actor who shouldered a very complex role that he handles competently for the most part. It is just that he cannot quite maintain the level of quitter reserved bravado that those around him achieve. Though this may seem harsh I remind you that this year alone we have seen ‘Moonlight’ and ‘The Edge of Seventeen’ use young actors to terrific effect. In a conventional drama Hedges’ performance might hold up much better, but when he’s surrounded by so many quietly brilliant performances it loses some of its edge.
Lonergan clearly knows the level of talent he is working with here because his direction keeps the camera firmly planted on the actors. On more than one occasion I would find myself wishing the camera would turn away so to end the barrage of grief and pain. The way Lonergan structures his film plays into this as well. Rather than any kind of conventional three act structure the story almost flows without hesitation, as if one aspect bleeds into one another until we end up with this continuous stream of events. In the way that the film tries to not only paint a picture of real life and grounded characters as well as an entire community in general, it succeeds brilliantly.
A compelling and endlessly endearing portrait of grief, while it can be difficult to watch at times, ‘Manchester by the Sea’ is always engaging and always emotionally resonant, backed up by some astonishing performances.