Kenneth Lonergan returns with this emotional, devastating masterpiece.
Grief is a terrible thing. Once you experience it, there’s no going back, no matter how much time passes, and we all bounce back to varying degrees. While some can find ways to cope with it, becoming content with letting it live in the guest rooms of their psyche, others can find themselves lost in the darkness. No matter which one we end up being, it’s something that is both universal and entirely specific to ourselves. Friends and family members can sympathize with you, making connections to their grief and yours, but there’s no way of truly feeling what each other person feels. There are no “one size fits all” ways to recover, and because of that, the way we react and recover from those moments is unique, and therefore, not explainable to other people.
After the highly-publicized, six-year-long legal troubles with his second feature film, Margaret, it seemed like a very real possibility that we could never see another film written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan. Luckily, we can thank both Matt Damon and John Krasinski it seems for making sure that Lonergan’s hiatus from the director’s chair wouldn’t be a long one, and he has returned to the silver screen this year with Manchester by the Sea, a film that visualizes grief and loss in a way that no other has, and which might not only be his best film to date, but also arguably the best film this year.
Based on a story originally pitched to Lonergan by Damon and Krasinski, Manchester by the Sea follows Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a janitor for a run down apartment complex in Boston, who returns to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) suddenly dies of heart failure. Upon returning home, Lee is not only forced to deal with the future of his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), when he learns that Joe made it so Lee would become his legal guardian following his death, but also must come to terms with the memories of his hometown, following a personal tragedy he faced there several years prior.
Lonergan carefully unspools the tragedies in Lee’s life throughout the opening half of the film, giving us hints and glimpses into his life in Manchester before we met him, leading up to the eventual reveal, which is so vivid, emotional, and real that it seems like every frame of it has been burned into my mind forever. We know that it’s coming, and yet Lonergan manages to make it feel entirely unexpected. There’s no way to prepare for it, and it floods into Lee’s head in a matter of moments, barreling towards both he and us to devastating effect, painting everything both before and after it with an added level of tragedy and importance.
I’ve never seen memory presented in the way that it is in Manchester by the Sea, with Lonergan transitioning between the past and present fluidly and organically. When Lee remembers something from his past, it happens at a specific moment. There’s no obvious lead-up to it, and it feels like how everything else in Manchester by the Sea does – authentic and thoughtful.
While that might just make Manchester sound like the saddest movie of the year (which it probably is), Lonergan wisely fills his film with a surprising amount of comedy, and the casual sarcasm with which Lee and Patrick use to talk to each other feels so real, that you could almost believe Lonergan just copied and pasted the dialogue out of transcripts from some family’s tapes he found. It felt like spending two hours with close, personal relatives of mine, as they bickered about topics ranging from Joe’s funeral arrangements, all the way to Patrick’s several girlfriends.
Casey Affleck gives the performance of his career here as Lee, bringing the character to life with a depth and understanding that, in addition to Lonergan’s writing, makes him one of the best cinematic characters of recent memory. He’s an almost certain shoo-in for an Oscar nomination (and maybe even win) for Best Actor next year as his work here is nothing short of masterful. Everyone is on their A-game when they’re around him, including an equally-stunning Lucas Hedges as Patrick, and Michelle Williams, who plays Lee’s ex-wife, and manages to give one of the best female performances of the year with only a handful of actual scenes in the film.
They’re only helped by the material that they’ve been given by Lonergan of course, an award-winning playwright who has shown his penchant for creating real and vibrant characters multiple times before. In a film that’s dialogue-heavy from beginning to end however, Lonergan uses silence in his film to really bring the emotions of the story home, including the central flashback sequence, and a majority of the film’s final scenes. It’s what’s left unsaid in Manchester by the Sea that means the most, and he uses every moment and frame of it to his advantage.
Like in both You Can Count on Me and Margaret, Lonergan recognizes that the most universal truths can be unearthed not with grandstanding or monologues, but with specific details. From the way that Lee reacts to seeing an old photograph, or Patrick does to opening his freezer and seeing frozen meat inside, during one of the film’s most touching moments, we can sympathize with the characters because they remind us not only of people that we’ve known and met in our lives, but of ourselves. We’ve all been there, we’ve all broken down during moments we really wish we hadn’t, gotten in fights we regret, and cried in front of people we never wanted to. Lonergan recognizes that, and he brings it to life not with judgement or with some kind of uplifting agenda, but with the sincerity that these kinds of things happen everyday.
With Manchester by the Sea, Lonergan hasn’t made the typical Oscar film about grief and redemption that we see come through the awards circuit every year. He’s made a human film instead, one that doesn’t lie to us and tell us that with the right song and romance all of our pain and suffering can go away. No, instead, he’s created a story about grief and suffering with an honesty that says nothing will ever be the same after we experience something like what Lee does here, but that’s okay. Redemption isn’t often found in running through an airport or saving the day; redemption is most likely found more in the little things… like riding on a boat and closing your eyes, allowing yourself to feel the rush of the ocean underneath you for the first time in a long time.
Published at Tue, 15 Nov 2016 19:00:17 +0000