This following review was released by Tommy Block (’17) on September 5, 2017. Visit The Block Review website for additional reviews.
Despite having journeyed a grueling arc of grief and honesty, Manchester By the Sea essentially completes its story where it begins. The characters are shifted around by the end, but great movies never take location literally, do they? The vast desert can just as easily be considered David Lean’s concept; its sheer grandeur folds T.E. Lawrence into the symbolic speck that the filmmaker sculpted him into. It’s not about how large the landscape is as much as how small the figure looks compared to it.
The individuals in writer and director Kenneth Lonergan’s masterwork realize their own insignificance, but size isn’t required to put them into perspective. The word “sea” almost taunts the fallacy of travel; these middle-aged adults think the same, act the same, and communicate the same as they do when we first meet them. If they could aspire as they surely once were able to, then they would neither tinker with their desires. Ambition seems haughty in a community where the ultimate dream is to settle. Manchester-by-the-Sea, to my mild surprise, is an actual locale in Massachusetts, as pleasant as it is in pictures. For these fictional residents, the town’s name contains two unattainable ideals: the belonging they will never be patient enough to understand, and the euphoria they will never bother to chase after.
We could deem it an optimistic film if we found these individuals to “progress” at all, but I don’t believe Lonergan wishes for us to accept as much, at least not according to the attractive, simplified rules of conventional cinema. We cannot, however, necessarily decide this is a pessimistic film, since pessimism — at least in this case — is not to be confused with misery, a frame of mind rather than an outlook. Manchester By the Sea has rightfully been viewed as a miserable movie, replete with sad encounters, sad incidents, and sad consequences. My friend went with his parents to see this film, and afterwards, his mom wordlessly sobbed from the theater to the parking lot. We deduce the personalities on the screen from their beaten, broken eyes; without them, the faces in this film are empty. There are reasons behind their sorrows, ones that can be put into words but shouldn’t. There are situations where even the most delicate forms of speech tiptoe across eggshells.
Lonergan, I believe, uses Manchester by the Sea to cradle the delicate life he locates in such tender spaces. Where Damien Chazelle discovers it in exuberance and song, Lonergan finds it in pauses and silence, a sadness that isn’t any more or less real than the joy in La La Land. Casey Affleck — in one of the most powerful performances of his career — portrays a man defined by emotional scars, consumed by a past in which he still lives. He rarely advances as a character, only doing so in coming to terms with the fact. He is stuck, and it seems as if he chooses to be. The movie takes a rigorous dive into his loneliness, but it is not a film of abandonment. It’s a quiet observation of pain, entirely bitter, yet entirely and simultaneously enveloped in warmth. It is one of the best films of 2016.
The idea of regret indeed appears to be lost on Lee Chandler (Affleck), a reject from the neighborhood to which he once belonged. I avoid sharing what has happened to him (or, more accurately, what he has mistakenly done to others) in order to conceal critical plot points — his downfall is signaled in brief flashbacks, though his mannerisms sprout from little more than narrow, albeit heavy, context. He subjects himself to a social purgatory not out of remorse but out of necessity; now stationed in Quincy, he works as a handyman, a job that entails blunt, superficial interaction with those he serves, some timidly polite, others thankless, and all apparently unconcerned with him. He uses his own diluted discretion to determine who among them is worth his fleeting respect. To those who rub him the wrong way, he can be offensive, even violent. In the same scene in a dimly lit bar, we see him fumble a conversation with a kind woman at the counter and start a fist fight with some nearby men. Bloodied, he returns late at night to a tiny alcove in the basement of a shadowy apartment, his home.
Some time later, he’s notified that his nephew has suddenly become fatherless (his mother has long been out of the picture), and for the first time in years, he is forced back to Manchester-by-the-Sea to swoop the sixteen-year-old Patrick (the young Lucas Hedges) under his shaky wing. This is sooner than he can realize that his brother, now deceased, has chosen Lee himself to be the legal guardian of his son.
Patrick has already garnered a mind and mouth of his own. He is at the rebellious age where he refuses to admit his dependency; he reluctantly sits slumped in the passenger seat of Lee’s car on the way to various friends’ houses, where he will likely reside well past dinner time, comfortably distanced from his protective but alienated uncle. Their relationship is further hammered down by the shadow of the family’s recent loss. It’s odd and revealing that Patrick ignores the elephant in the room — externally, he is unfazed by the death of his parent and smoothly invites girls to the household where his late father once walked only a year before.
Patrick poses a challenge that Lee can’t, but must, overcome, with Lonergan’s script weighing the throes of guilt and responsibility. How long after a tragedy can you learn to trust yourself again? Chandler is the very personification of desolation, and I question what insightful individual saw this man in Affleck. Perhaps Joaquin Phoenix or Michael Shannon could’ve also given justice to the role, but the character needed to be a touch softer, less commanding. Each of Affleck’s words are pinched, having scraped the bottom of his heart on the way up his throat. He envisions his ex-wife (an excellent and piercing Michelle Williams) as the ghost of his honor; he wants to have lost her, even when she pleads for his soul to come up for air. In essential scenes, the cinematography has a stinging directness, exactly how Lee confronts himself.
Moonlight, the other Great movie from this past year, derived its main figure’s suffering from identity and precondition. In Manchester By the Sea, this protrudes from human error, a habit that leads to an accidental yet irreversible act. Our imperfection is at times unforgivable and always unforgiving — Lonergan cares about the extent to which it is natural. Here are two films that achieve the full interpersonal experiences that cinema has to offer, stories that feel deep and inhabited, possibly like never before. These directors have a gift, but more so a will to reflect.