Kenneth Lonergan revitalizes pathetic fallacy in his grand scale character study Manchester by the Sea. Each creative element breathes the anguish of his protagonist and immerses the audience deep within Lonergan’s story of mourning, family, and the ebb and flow of life’s misfortunes. His story is heart-wrenching with moments of natural humor befitting the local culture, and his presentation consistently adds color to a cinematic atmosphere otherwise mirroring its protagonist’s emotionally paralytic misfortunes. Lonergan’s actors, particularly Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, and Lucas Hedges (Moonrise Kingdom), bring an equally intense reality to their characters, and make Manchester by the Sea a visual study of the grieving heart and mind.
Lonergan’s film is and is not a story about one man and his island. Manchester follows Lee Chandler (Affleck), an apartment complex handyman living a routinely simple life in the Boston suburbs. When his brother John (Kyle Chandler) dies of a heart attack, Lee is forced to return to his childhood home of Manchester-by-the-Sea, MA to spearhead the funeral arrangements and care for his brother’s teenage son Patrick (Hedges). While there, Lee is confronted with painful memories from his past, which include a previous marriage to his estranged ex-wife Randi (Williams) and a small town that has not forgotten his misfortunes.
As the title suggests, Manchester is a film highly characterized by its setting. Lonergan treats the New England coastal town with the same reverence as John Steinbeck did with rural California. The town is its own character that works both with and directly against Lee, acting as a tempestuous and unforgiving force outside of his somber inner life. Frequent scenery shots on the family boat or the stillness of the harbor amidst a constantly moving sea bring the audience into the natural landscape and it’s indifference towards Lee’s struggles.
The visual accompaniment to Lee’s mind also manifests in Lonergan’s disjointed plot timeline and Jennifer Lame’s (Frances Ha) unique editing style. As soon as Lee arrives back into town, the film begins to jump back and forth between the present moment and Lee’s memories. These past scenes at first feel random and aimless, but reveal a deeper truth as they develop and their arbitrary placement result in an authentic portrayal of Lee’s troublesome memory recall.
Lonergan, largely known for his success as a playwright, uses the influence of the stage and high drama to move his story (he is also a two-time Screenplay Oscar nominee, with his last film being the critical hit Margaret). A score mostly comprised of orchestral melodies (Lesley Barber, Mansfield Park) adds to the drama of each scene and lends the film a theatrical undertone. In a movie populated by the New England working class, Bostonian accents, and blue collar sentimentality, the contrastingly elegant score tells its own story of a universal anguish and permeating emotions.
Counteracting Lonergan’s somber creative landscape is a celebration of the region, its culture, and its tendency to find humor in tragedy. In Lee’s moments of relief, which are mostly found within the youthful resiliency of his nephew, the film finds comedy in its sincerity and the comfortable interactions of its characters. The cacophonous voices of Lee’s family and neighbors often invade his quietude and bring him out of his past-dwelling reverie. Lonergan presents the town’s society as intrusive, yet well-intentioned with the potential for healing. Patrick, immediately submerging in the comfort of his friends and normal life, represents an alternative to Lee’s mourning, as he bounces back in a buoyant environment rather than drown in internal solitude.
Lee and Patrick’s yin-yang experiences of grief are performed with utmost care by Affleck and Hedges. The actors’ chemistry reveals both a dependence between the two characters as well as an unavoidable separation in personalities. Furthermore, Affleck’s performance is the best of his career. The role was likely hand-picked for the actor, seeing as how his characters usually share somber temperaments, but Affleck’s portrayal of Lee’s inner war is categorically masterful. Likewise, Williams enters the film as a supporting character, but leaves it with a runaway emotionally heartbreaking performance. One particular scene between Affleck and Williams toward the end of the film will leave audiences inconsolable. It is a scene imbued by a poignant give-and-take from its actors resulting in an immaculate emotional climax.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
Lonergan’s film is one that will quietly sneak up on its audience. His visual and auditory presentation is elegant in its enhancement of the plot and Lee’s character study. The film’s individual actors are all outstanding, and Williams’ incredibly nuanced performance will have people talking throughout awards season and beyond. Manchester by the Sea, outside of its acting credentials, is truly unique because of Lonergan’s careful attention to character and detail, marrying his subject to its environment, and creating a truly immersive cinematic experience. It may be necessary, however, for the viewer to be in the right mental place to truly appreciate Lonergan’s ode to mourning.