(5 Year Anniversary)
Five years ago this weekend, Manchester by the Sea premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to critical adoration, igniting a theatrical run that culminated in five Golden Globe nominations, six British Academy Film Award nominations, and six Oscar nominations (with wins for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay). Rightfully recognized then as one of the best movies of 2016, the passage of time has not diminished its power; on the contrary, though it has only been five years, the film bears all of the hallmarks of aging like a fine Burgundy pinot noir. Subdued, patient, and brimming with empathy for its complex personages, “Manchester by the Sea” is an intelligent and engaging rumination on the timeless themes of grief, familial relations, and redemption.
The plot follows Lee Chandler who, after inadvertently causing a terrible family tragedy in his hometown of Manchester, moves to Boston to live as a reclusive, alcoholic handyman. He must return, however, upon learning that his brother has died and that he has been entrusted with the care of his brother’s sixteen-year-old son. Forced to confront the place of his psychological demons, Lee finds himself placed on a redemptive path to reingratiate himself with the friends and family with whom he had severed ties.
Recounting the story succinctly does not do it justice, particularly because it is easy to imagine how formulaic and predictable the film could have turned out if it had been put into the hands of the generic Hollywood machine. Long impassioned monologues with tears and yelling before ending in gentle reconciliation: rinse, repeat, rinse, repeat until everything is hunky-dory and the main character is happily re-accepted by his family and town. Luckily, Manchester by the Sea is an atypical redemption story by Hollywood standards, forgoing the melodramatic potential of its plot points to become a searingly realistic portrayal of inescapable grief.
Part of the film’s power certainly has to be attributed to Casey Affleck’s subdued lead performance as Lee Chandler, which was good enough to earn the actor his first Oscar. Affleck embodies one who is perpetually reeling from the fallout of having committed a terrible mistake by masochistically denying himself pleasure or further connection in order to satiate an insatiable guilt. This is a performance sans emotional hysteria or histrionics; rather, it gives the impression of a battered and deeply wounded soul hiding underneath a veneer of indifference. Thus, Affleck immediately renders this reticent character into a deeply engaging personage, hooking the viewer into the film’s gradual chipping away at his façade to find the scars that lie beneath.
Kenneth Lonergan’s original screenplay, the other Oscar-winning element of the film, should also be singled out as a factor in the movie’s fresh realistic take on redemption. It is an expertly structured piece of writing, flawlessly weaving in flashbacks with the current story so that the reveal of the key tragedy—the catalyst for the whole story—is properly built up to and appropriately shocking and heart-rending. It is also a brave piece of writing, one that flouts a traditional happy ending so as to showcase accurately the gravity of a grief from which it is impossible to escape. By the end, despite some minor concessions, Lee is mostly as holed up as he was before. He receives forgiveness from his ex-wife, but it is a pyrrhic concession. He stays in Manchester for a bit, but eventually has to leave: in his own words to his nephew, he simply “can’t beat it”, “it” referring to the haunting reminders of his past. He tries to stay guardian to his nephew but ultimately relinquishes that responsibility to a family friend. There is even a hint of potential romance that could conceivably drag him out of his spiritual mire, but he purposefully squanders that as well. There is one silver lining, however, in that Lee successfully reforms a personal connection with his nephew. It fixes only a small portion of everything that has gone wrong in Lee’s life, but it is still significant. And therein lies the power of the story. It stays true to life. With true, inescapable grief, it may be impossible to recover fully. Sometimes, in the face of insurmountable despair, the most we can hope for is a small triumph important enough to sustain the drive to live.
In all, Manchester by the Sea is a modern-day classic that ought to be recognized not only as one of the best films of 2016, but of the entire decade. Every aspect of it, in addition to its aforementioned Oscar-winning elements, is close to perfect. Casey Affleck is flanked by an excellent supporting cast consisting of Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges and Kyle Chandler. The cinematography also is fantastic. The static one-shot in the police interrogation scene is immersive: doing away with fancy angles or cuts allows the viewer to get into the perspective of the officers, the immediate recipients of Lee’s manifestation of guilt and grief. The visuals of the opening sequence, too, are worth noting. It is a memory of Lee fishing with his nephew and brother before the central tragedy takes place: it is happy and filled with laughter and jokes. Yet, it is not filmed with traditional nostalgic golden soft light and does not consist of close-ups of smiling faces. Rather, it is shot at a distance, the faces of the subjects unknown and the bodies of the characters almost indiscernible in the scape of the dark blue sea and gray skies. This is not nostalgia as warm, fuzzy memories; this is nostalgia as the unattainable, in which the moments shown—moments of happiness and familial bonding—are reflected upon with the knowledge that they could never be actualized again. And the reason? Because they occurred before the central tragedy, which has since rendered such feelings of life-affirming satisfaction an impossibility. Thus, the cinematography foreshadows the central thesis of the film: there are simply some tragedies that cannot be overcome.