Devin Carter, A&E Writer
Movies can do a lot of things. They can inspire, depress, elate. They can also give somebody a new perspective on life, or challenge them in numerous new ways. And then there are films, such as Manchester by the Sea, that remind us of the sorts of things life is all about, showing both the good and the bad. With this film, there is a special emphasis on the bad. There is a sense of despair throughout the movie, and this heavy emotion is presented to us in slow increments. And all the while we get a sense that these characters are walking an emotional tightrope, just trying to make it to safer ground. Sometimes they fall to the side, and let their pain come out, and other times they are able to keep their balance, and press on with life.
The film ultimately concerns itself with loss, and how to cope with it. It opens with a death, and it is this death, as well as others, that hang over our characters as they try to pick up the pieces. And, as you will see, some have an easier time with it than others. Manchester asks a question no other film I have ever seen has dared to ask: What if you can’t move on after you lose a loved one? What if you are so filled with desolation, that all that awaits you from here is superficial happiness? It is much easier to make an inspirational movie about perseverance, but it is another thing entirely to make a movie such as this.
But the film is too good to simply ask these heavy-handed questions and place them in the foreground. Despite the overwhelming feeling of sorrow, the characters mostly continue living, and we experience much of their everyday lives as they try to come to terms with things. In this movie, we have strange, fascinating scenes, such as a man making funeral arrangements while eating cereal with the deceased person’s son, a young man named Patrick who is played brilliantly by Lucas Hedges. Keeping true to the film’s purpose to show how life goes on, Patrick does not let the death of a parent get in the way of his sexual endeavors, and his interactions with multiple women take up a decent amount of screen time. We do have emotional scenes, and, trust me, there is more than enough emotion to go around. And yet it often takes the back seat to more mundane things, such as school, band practice, and legal arrangements. And is that not what life is all about? Even when tragedy strikes, we still have responsibilities. We still have life to live.
And even still, there is the possibility that you cannot just move on with your life, sometimes your tragedies will break you, and you just can’t beat it. We wonder if this is what has happened as we watch the main character, Lee, played brilliantly by Casey Affleck in an Oscar-winning performance. Perhaps not since Marlon Brando have I seen an actor show real sorrow so well. It is not over-the-top, but contained. And yet everything that Lee does, he does with a sense of sadness. Every word he speaks, every action he takes, he does with a heavy heart and a battered soul. It is a beautiful, devastating thing to watch.
Manchester by the Sea is a masterpiece. And yet it is not a masterpiece in the conventional way. It does not have any obvious universal message, nor does it stand out as being especially grand in scope and ambition. The masterwork lies in the screenplay, as it uses some of the best writing in years to allow the events and emotions to slowly unfold, in combination with some of the greatest ensemble acting in any film. It’s a quiet movie, and sometimes it may seem as if it isn’t going anywhere. But that’s its secret. By keeping everything grounded, it keeps its big questions and messages closer to reality, and makes the things that the characters are going through more relatable.
Many of the characters in the movie are battling inner demons. Some of them stay with us for the entirety of the film, and their problems are in the foreground. But there are other characters that help this world feel expansive, such as a woman who has overcome drug problems and is now trying to get her life back together, and another who has a special connection with our main character, Lee. But there are also other characters, such as Patrick’s girlfriends and his teachers, who are aware of the awful events but are largely unaffected, and their presence helps provide a greater sense of realism to the movie, and also helps make our grieving characters’ pain more distinctive. The setting is also used to great effect. The city the characters inhabit is by the ocean, and the emotions and events that unfold against the beautiful landscape make the feelings in this movie even more complex, and for whatever reason, even more sad.
After seeing how the characters try to go on with life, we are reminded that the past is always right behind them. Towards the end of the film, there is a scene between Lee and a woman from his past, played by Michelle Williams. The encounter does not last very long, but thanks to the masterful buildup to it and the incredible writing, it becomes one of the most moving scenes of any film I have ever seen, and nearly brings tears to my eyes each time I see it. I will not dare to spoil how this movie ends, for it is one of the most impactful endings of any film. But rest assured that it does not disappoint, and will leave you thinking for a very long time after it is over.
Manchester by the Sea does not show us anything new, but presents familiar themes and messages to us in a new way, and it forces us to consider them in ways that make us uncomfortable. But I think it is important for us to ask ourselves tough questions, even if we do not like the answers. For some, it may seem like a boring drag. But if you take the time to look a little closer, just a bit below the surface, you will see an entire world of emotions. And if you have enough patience to take in and consider the importance of the seemingly unimportant scenes that unfold, you will realize just how important those scenes are. And, if you allow yourself to become invested in the characters and make it to the end, you will be reminded of just how heart-wrenching and how powerful movies can be.