MANCHESTER BY THE SEA Review
Director: Kenneth Longeran
I missed the chance to watch MANCHESTER BY THE SEA at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. The real salt in the wound was that I opted to watch the overhyped, oversold, and overrated THE BIRTH OF A NATION instead. 10 months after the fact, I finally found myself in a theatre, ready to take in director Kenneth Lonergan’s much acclaimed drama. Frankly, I will always sell MANCHESTER BY THE SEA short. No amount of words can articulate the masterpiece that Lonergan has created. And yet, I will try: MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is the single most comprehensive dissection of depression, guilt, mourning, and internal suffering in cinematic history. Nothing this year has come close to its emotional potency, and it’s been an absolute banner year for hard-hitting dramas. From MOONLIGHT to LA LA LAND, we’ve seen it all (and are sure to get more), but MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is a different kind of beast: the type of film that manages perfection through nothing but microscopic nuance.
The aforementioned films will maintain relevance over Academy season (with MOONLIGHT, AMERICAN HONEY, THE WITCH, and co. already scoring a number of big, much deserved nominations for the Spirit awards), but that comes with the territory when your film is willfully attention-seeking both in narrative, style, and content. There is a refinement in Lonergan’s directorial hand that firmly secures MANCHESTER BY THE SEA as a superior work of art here, which is also why I’m so excited to see it included in the Spirit’s list of nominees (though I’m certain he won’t take home as many awards as Barry Jenkins). This isn’t a film with sweeping camerawork or timely social commentary. Instead, it’s an exercise in precision. Shots are immaculate. Performances are tuned to perfection. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is drama through-and-through. A film of unflinching earnestness. A self-effacing portrayal of loss and companionship. These subtleties are accomplished through Lonergan’s confident framing and his sublime ensemble cast. No more. No less.
“Your fly is open”
Casey Affleck’s performance as a troubled divorcee set the foundation for an entire family and their complex history with the town they inhabit. His quiet interactions with co-stars Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, and Lucas Hedges all indicate a vast succession of unspoken emotions. Though Affleck has always been a brewing success-story since the release of THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, it is here that he has joined the pantheon of masterclass actors. The elegance of each pristine sequence is most noticeable in the fact that MANCHESTER BY THE SEA doesn’t have one objective best conversation. The ebb and flow of each character’s tete-a-tete is so effortless, and so natural, that we begin to identify the city of Manchester as a place and Casey Affleck as a real person that inhabits it. Never did I slip out and think about Lonergan’s desire to plant information only to dramatically pay it off later. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA simply doesn’t work that way. It is a film about longing for understanding, and although all the necessary information is there for characters to have the important talk, their inherent fear of sincerity and emotional transparency renders this into an impossibility.
I’d be remiss to say that I wasn’t surprised that MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is an American film. The operatic nature of its tragic reveals, its slow-burn, and the effortless, character-centric nature of Lonergan’s formal approach all indicate the workings of a traditional kitchen sink drama. There is more Neo-Realism in this film than there are in most contemporary foreign releases. The attention to detail is riveting. From its stark transitions of dimly lit bedrooms to all-white snow, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is breathtakingly daring in its edits. Flashbacks rapidly swoop in and out of Affleck’s mind, and are never bridged through tacky auditory cues. Instead, Lonergan denotes the transition from present into past through nothing more but Affleck’s powerful gaze: a visage that carries the weight of the world on its shoulders, and has accepted that it will never mend its broken heart.
Off screen: Kenneth Lonergan has walked onto set naked
Affleck’s performance finds its perfect mate in the star-to-be that is Lucas Hedges. The troubled, angsty youth showcases a vulnerability that clashes distinctly with Affleck’s introverted, internal mourning. Here is where MANCHESTER BY THE SEA builds a beautiful dichotomy: namely that of a son’s grieving process, versus that of a brother. Realism is central to Lonergan’s construction of Affleck and Hedges. Where MANCHESTER BY THE SEA could have taken the easy way out, upping the stakes through every instance of shared dialogue, Affleck and Hedges are constantly see-sawing with one another emotionally. As much as they try to see eye-to-eye, their conflicts of interest and their own vulnerability make it impossible to discuss what they are going through. At times they can’t stand each other, and then they share a moment of peaceful intimacy. It’s this dramatic fluctuation that mirrors so nicely in the B-roll: the tide of Manchester’s pier.
Yet, after everything I have said in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA’s favor, I still feel like I’m underselling it. Kenneth Lonergan’s film isn’t about loud moments, but the quiet minimalism of screen acting. For a film that could arguably be a stage play, Lonergan justifies its existence as a work of filmmaking through his attention to the human face. It’s a film that loves its characters, as flawed as they may be, and prioritizes an accurate portrayal of its niche milieu. It is a work of empathy. A feature that mourns with its cast. Lonergan knows his responsibilities as a director. He understands what he needs to tell us, but he also remembers the virtues of occasionally leaving us in the dark. Through the subtext of every conversation, Lonergan helps us expand our own understanding of the city of Manchester, and why each character behaves the way they do. As such, it is both a malleable narrative and devastatingly precise in its discussion of grief. MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is not one of the best films of 2016. It is one of the best films of all time.