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There is a moment in the recent film Nocturnal Animals which is very relevant in regards to Manchester by the Sea. In the former, Jake Gyllenhaal’s character writes a novel where a man’s wife and children are killed. We see the aftermath of this event playout on-screen where the grieving man, as a means of coping with his loss, takes a shower and then, sits by the bath, wet and unable move – paralysed by grief. Often a short-cut to portraying grief in cinema is including such a scene. It’s a means of establishing a character’s devastation without having to go into the painful nitty gritty of how people truly deal with the loss of a loved one.
In contrast, Manchester by the Sea mines its entire drama out of the minutiae of grief. It stars Casey Affleck as Lee, a man living an intentionally empty existence for reasons that become clear as the drama continues. He is divorced from his wife, Randi (an incredible Michelle Williams), and makes a self-conscious effort not to forge any emotional connections to those around him, preferring instead to spend his nights getting into petty bar-fights. However, following his brother’s death (Kyle Chandler) and the realisation that he is now the legal guardian of his teenage nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Lee is suddenly plunged into a position where he’s forced to engage with life.
Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (whose previous feature Margaret revolved around a woman struggling to cope with the fact that she inadvertently caused a death) is no stranger to the topic of grief. His script is incredibly authentic, taking the time to go through what one has to do in such an event with great verisimility. When has a viewer ever seen a character call their employers to let them know they won’t be able to show up for work due to a family death or haggle with funeral parlours over the particulars of a burial in an American movie before? It’s striking to see. Yet, what’s even more impressive is how Lonergan manages to make these scenes feel dramatically engaging, even adding a touch of humour to proceedings.
In terms of the film’s comedy, of which there is a surprising amount in between the powerful gut-wrenching drama, partial credit should go to his editor and frequent Noah Baumbach collaborator Jennifer Lame. She wrings a lot of humour just from the way she constructs scenes. An example includes the juxtaposition between Patrick in a moment of passion with his girlfriend and Lee engaging in the most dull, pedestrian conversation (on his part) with the girl’s aunt. However, a lot of the laughs are inherent to the script. Lonergan handles the moments where people bicker over funeral arrangements or custody the way Robert Altman would – where the characters’ dialogue laps over itself and the most inappropriate comment gets blurted out loudly. The movie is funny, but it’s humour is blackly comic and doesn’t detract from the film’s dramatic beats.
As I mentioned earlier, Manchester by the Sea is heart-breaking. It’s portrayal of a family broken and sort of put back together by grief is very visceral. At times, it’s a subtle form of devastation. For instance, following his dad’s death, Patrick is invited to dine with his estranged mother (a very good Gretchen Mol) and her fiancée (Matthew Broderick). Although nothing traumatic or destructive occurs, the atmosphere is so awkward and clinical that the viewer just wants to turn away in discomfort because the characters just can’t seem to connect. Yet, the movie’s big emotionally cathartic moments feel equally real. When the audience discover the reason why Lee lives the way he does, it hits the viewer like a ton of bricks, as does the moment where Randi attempts to re-connect with him (between this and Blue Valentine, every-time I see Michelle Williams on-screen in future I’ll have to brace myself for tears).
Personally, I think the movie is better written than it is directed. That’s not to say Lonergan does a poor a job – in fact it’s to his credit that he manages to navigate the film’s heavy flashback structure so well. Just occasionally, the score can be a tad manipulative in the sense that it signposts for the viewer how their meant to feel. Also, on one or two occasions the disconnect between the past and present scenes is a little jarring. However, when one has a central performance as strong as Affleck’s – he is utterly convincing as a broken and hollow shell of a person – and a script as unsentimental, funny and devastating, it doesn’t need to be the best technically made movie. Manchester by the Sea’s central premise is simple enough – a man living in a self-imposed exile is forced to reconnect with others when a loved one refuses to let themselves be turned away – but the way it handles the darkness, the comedy and the trivial details of grief is so much more.
Manchester by the Sea is in cinemas now.