A Quiet, Human Meditation on Grief
Depression and grief have been the fuel for countless awards season films and writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is the latest to tackle the topics with an appropriate amount of pathos and empathy toward its characters. However, what differentiates Manchester by the Sea from many others is the subdued, far from flashy nature in which it tells its story, which combines with numerous powerful performances for a quietly moving, humanistic meditation on its themes.
Like the effects of grief, Lonergan tells his story through a filter that feels quieted and crushed by the depression gripping its characters. In doing so, Manchester by the Sea is an emotionally honest and human look at how death and loss impact each person differently and whether moving on from tragedy is truly possible for everyone. In the hands of different filmmakers and actors, Manchester could have easily been a melodramatic roller coaster that insisted on the importance of its acting choices and hammered its viewers with non-stop emotional highs and lows.
Instead, this examination of a man, Lee Chandler (played by Casey Affleck), who has been living with a past tragedy and must now take care of his nephew in the wake of his brother’s sudden death, works to subtly and earnestly gain emotional investment from its viewers.
With a captivating lead performance by Affleck, who makes Lee into a nearly emotionally dead individual who still conveys massive amounts of meaning with few words and micro-expressions, Manchester calls its viewers to observe it lead character intently and find understanding in his often poor choices. If you’re looking for a big, flashy performance that shows off everything that Affleck can do, this is certainly not it. This is a real expression of what soul-crushing loss does to someone and how everything becomes filtered through the grief that follows. While the range in expression may be limited, Affleck makes every little choice count. It’s captivating, moving stuff and Manchester largely works because of it.
But Manchester explores the forms of grief in a multitude of ways through the rest of its phenomenal supporting cast, not the least of which is Lucas Hedges as Lee’s teenage nephew, Patrick, who is experiencing the fallout of his father’s death and his entire world being turned on its head. After beginning with a sole focus on Affleck’s Lee, the film quickly evolves to become just as much about Hedges’ Patrick and his juxtaposition against Lee’s longstanding, inescapable grief. Their interplay is the driving engine of the film, leading to many moments of realistically funny levity, as well as its most dour moments of despair. These elements combine for a story that feels like an actual life being captured on screen, rather than a self-serious tragedy attempting to squeeze every tear from its audience members.
On the peripheries of the film stand Kyle Chandler as the recently deceased Joe, glimpsed through the film’s many defining flashbacks, C.J. Wilson as the warm and often heartbroken George, and Gretchen Mol as Patrick’s estranged mother. There’s even a very odd and (possibly intentionally) off-putting cameo by Matthew Broderick. Each of these actors adds to Lee and Patrick’s story in varying capacities, but provide crucial emotional weight. And special mention is deserved for Michelle Williams as Randi, Lee’s ex-wife, whose relationship is slowly defined through a series of flashbacks that reveal the tragedy that broke them apart and wrecked Lee. While Williams’ role is brief throughout much of the film, a late scene justifies the presence of the frequently lauded actress, as its brief yet emotionally raw encounter recontextualizes much of the film and serves to bring deeper themes to the surface. With scant minutes of screen time, Williams offers a massively powerful supporting performance.
Each of these actors are shot with a distant and often passive style. Lonergan and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes have chosen to lens their film in a manner that embodies the human eye. Most scenes are shot at a distance that would be seen from the perspective of another person in the room, which denies the chance for artistic flourish or a killer close-up that would sell the powerful performances on display. Rather, most scenes play out in extended takes that frequently deny the viewer from seeing every detail, with key pieces of information often obscured in the frame and many actors blocked in such a way as to turn their faces away from the camera.
In doing so, Lonergan forces audiences to interface more consistently with his film in order to understand the various nuances of each performance. While that may prevent Manchester by the Sea from resonately as deeply as some may expect from its subject matter, it also leads to a far more authentic film that bypasses the typical melodrama that many would expect if they were told the film’s plot.
With its narrative largely devoted to only a few days in the aftermath of a death, Manchester by the Sea is focused on detailing the small losses and changes that happen in life in the wake of losing a loved one. Its defeats are devastating on a small, intimate level and its moments of growth come in the form of hope for the future rather than immediately life-changing revelations. Set against the cold, grey, yet often picturesque Massachusetts seaside, the setting of Manchester is just as harsh and hard as the circumstances confronted by each person.
Moment by moment, piece by piece, Lonergan has created a narrative and characters that are quietly heartbreaking without being ruthlessly crushing. Through its balanced blend of tones and nuances performances, Manchester by the Sea is a thoughtful rumination on the effects of grief and the meaning of family. It allows the viewer to make their own judgments and interpret as they will; strengthening what is already a discreetly powerful film.