The Oscar's Countdown: Manchester by the Sea

Published: Feb. 21, 2017 at 1:02 PM CST
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There’s no easy way to describe playwright turned filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan’s deeply emotional film Manchester by the Sea. It explores so many emotions that a brief description simply can’t do it justice. This complex drama takes the self-punishing Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) back to his hometown, and tasks him with taking care of his nephew after the boy’s father passed away.

We all deal with things differently, and find our own ways to remember those we’ve lost. Lee’s method is far more punishing than most. However, the film isn’t just about the pain of loss and regret, it’s about forgiveness, as much for oneself as for others. Well-timed flashbacks inform us of the reasons for Lee’s self-punishment. Mistakes he made lead to the loss of his children and divorce from his wife. Returning to his hometown and playing father to his nephew only makes these painful memories resurface. While that sounds like the makings of a familiar Hollywood formula, Lonergan only uses it as a starting point for finding true emotions with realistic people.

To understand the character it’s important to understand his thought process. It’s clear through subtle set design, props, and performances that Lee had been living in a state of self imposed exile after having failed to commit suicide. In the film’s early scenes Affleck plays Lee as a cold, detached, sad sack living in a basement apartment, significant for it’s symbolism of living six feet under. In fact, he’s so dead inside that even the news of his brother’s death warrants little emotional acknowledgment. He refuses offers to spend time with friends or potential new love interests as a way of refusing any chance at happiness out of guilt. He also often gets into fistfights at bars. That’s because we overhear whispers from the people in this small town discussing Lee’s background just loud enough for even Lee to hear. They’re subtle reminders of how hard it is to leave your past behind in a small community.

However, don’t let the subject matter fool you, Manchester by the Sea is probably the funniest movie about grief you’ll ever see. That doesn’t make it a comedy, but it certainly keeps the film from being too depressing to watch. In fact, it proves Lonergan’s ability to portray a multitude of emotions in a compelling way that makes his characters enduringly likable. The film often plays like a slice of life film allowing us to witness a brief time in these character’s lives. It allows us to relate to them while they comically search in the frigid cold for the car they can’t remember where they parked. It’s little moments like these that show Lonergan’s rare ability to find dry humor despite tough times. It isn’t that he throws in jokes from time to time, it’s sarcastic lines delivered with a straight face or a pair of bumbling EMTs trying and failing repeatedly to collapse the legs of a gurney so they can load it into an ambulance. Sometimes the dry humor was so intimately paired with moments of grief that it took a moment after the scene had ended to realize it was ok to smile.

Lee’s relationship to his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), is the most important part of the film. It’s never made clear whether or not Lee’s brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), purposely left his son to him as a means of forcing him out of exile, but Lee’s acceptance of the responsibility out of loyalty works to that effect just the same. The two are grieving in their own separate ways, both too manly to openly acknowledge the fact, but being together makes it easier anyway.

Lonergan, instead, communicates through effective use of props. For instance, Lee packs picture frames of his family to keep with him, and though we never see the images we know what's in them. When Patrick enters the room he notices them and understands, as we do, why Lee chooses to live the way he does.

Rather than crying together, they argue over what to do about Joe’s boat and his bodily remains. The ultimate decisions made about them become the evidence of the changes these characters have undergone. Affleck’s subtle performance effectively hints at the depths of his internal pain without telegraphing it. Unlike most Hollywood films of this nature, Lonergan isn’t interested in turning Lee’s life completely around. He understands that humans don’t work that way. He opts instead for more realistic growth that doesn't solve all his problems, but leaves him in a better place anyway.

That’s why Manchester by the Sea is such an affecting film. It’s densely packed and carefully crafted from it’s use of nonlinear editing to its finely tuned performances. It is, however, a very tough film, but a rewarding one nonetheless. It’s one of the best films of the year and Casey Affleck deserves every bit of the recognition he’s received.