Manchester by the Sea (2016) : A poetic character study of grief and loss.


An Uncle is obliged to return home to care for his nephew after his brother dies. Unknowing he is to be the guardian and struggles with the decision. Throughout the movie he recounts past memories that caused him to leave Manchester and distancing himself from his past.

This was the big Oscar contender I wasn’t sold on, I read all the rave reviews but not even the trailer captivated me. What did have me interested was the brief synopsis and Kenneth Lonergan, the films writer and director who had my attention since writing Gangs of New York. The film opens with the daily life of Lee Chandler a custodian for an apartment complex and its this daily life that shapes Lee’s character. Lonergan tries to represent the everyday man through Lee and he becomes the character you wouldn’t ever expect to see as the films protagonist. It becomes hard for a writer to create empathy for a character such as Lee, he’s rude, obnoxious and violent. However, due to the humility in Lonergan’s script you become to decipher the demons of this character and why he is the way he is. The story follows Lee as he goes to arrange his dead brothers funeral and work out a plan for his orphaned nephew. This story in itself is a contrast from the quiet opening and solitude Lee is used to. There becomes no confinements from his problems as the film becomes about a man being forced to face his demons.

What surprised me most about this film was its snappy dialogue and interactions between its characters. Much like a Quentin Tarantino script, Lonergan creates these long scenes with back and forth dialogue. What I wasn’t expecting at all was the humour each character bought, creating a sort of black comedy out of Manchester by the Sea. Now this wouldn’t be a film I would call a black comedy it isn’t Bernie but it becomes quite similar to a Coen’s script with the intelligence and realism it brings. Films like this are never meant to be funny because of its themes of grief but what Lonergan shows us is that people deal with grief in different ways. Bringing comedic tones into the film levels out what would be an intensely depressing movie. This adds to the films entertainment and adds to the films most prolific aspect, which is realism. We won’t always have an over acted emotional scene crying out for the Oscars, sometimes less is more. This was a trait that Casey Affleck adopted with his minimalistic performance as Lee Chandler, we didn’t get any big tear jerker scenes, but what we got was a very physical performance. The fragility of Lee’s persona was printed into Affleck’s performance and we would watch him go from a timid uncomfortable man into full-blown rage within a split second. Casey Affleck’s performance becomes his strongest role to date after Assassination of Jesse James and this should be the year he is recognised.









However, acting alongside him briefly in a few scenes was Lee’s ex-wife Randi played by the great actress Michelle Williams. Now, talking about Affleck’s minimalistic performance we get the complete opposite from Williams. She appears in the film only to give these powerful  emotional scenes which threw off the atmosphere and felt a bit over acted next to Affleck. I know she is getting accolades for her performance (even though she has 10 minutes of screen time) but I found her role to be the weakest link in such a strongly acted film. Lucas Hedges performance was another that was a hit or miss with me, in the comedic parts of the film he shined but in certain emotional scenes such as the “refrigerator” scene he came across over acted and dull. Lucky for the film it was based on a character study of Lee so Affleck’s great performance carried the film through Lonergan’s script.

Manchester by the Sea was a simple film but it was a view of one man and through the use of flashbacks the film filled in the pieces of Lee’s life and why he left Manchester. This is a hard feat to pull off but the film transitions smoothly into each flashback never fracturing the films narrative. Another thing that surprised me about the film was its score and use of classical pieces by George Frideric Handel, Jules Massenet and many more artists. Without the use on solely orchestrated pieces of music the film added another layer of depth through its use of its original pieces. Lesley Barber composed the score for Manchester by the Sea and she created such a linear but psychedelic soundtrack adding to the surrealistic dream like qualities of the film. For a composer whose work I’m not familiar with, she came out and created one of the most emotional pieces of music in film this year. Manchester by the Sea caught me off good with the surrealistic manner it all played out. It was like looking into a bubble of grief and the humour they used to mask this emotion. The whole film felt like it poetically floated through the mind and memories of Lee Chandler and the cinematography helped emphasise this. Jody Lee Lipes came through and bridged that gap between the ethereal score and the zone of grief on-screen. It’s an amazing film but it felt overlong at 137 minutes and this can be from Lonergan’s writing background. It felt like a writer making a film trying to self indulge in every little detail he wrote and we were left with unnecessary scenes for the sake of “character development”. Little things like Joe practicing with his band and the static shots of nothing as Lee wanders about could have been cut short. Lonergan is a great writer but he needed a to cut out some of the filler scenes to make this a cleaner final edit because the narrative was already slow-paced. This was my main problem with the film but it was  still an amazing and memorable piece of cinema. The main aim of film is to transport you to a different world, into a different mindset and that’s exactly what Manchester by the Sea achieves. There isn’t another film quite like it out there and it oozes originality in the manner it deals with its themes.

Final Verdict – 8.5






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