Manchester by the Sea Review: A Slow, But Engaging Story
Manchester by the Sea is a very interesting movie. It is slow, and dark at times, but unlike many films in Hollywood today, it also manages to be hysterical at the same time. It manages its tone better than most films of 2016, and likely will be able to tonally surpass most films in 2017. The film is very subdued in almost every aspect, unlike La La Land and Silence, Manchester embodies subtlety. This remarkable restraint puts major pressure on the script and the performances. Luckily, both the writer and the actors deliver tremendous work. The film is a little slow, but the pay-off is massive.
When Manchester by the Sea started, I was instantly bored. The film opens with its title and opera music, while displaying shots of boats and the ocean. For the first twenty minutes or so, I was confused as to what the story was about and how it would progress. Essentially, all we see is Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck’s character) walking around, doing his work, and being depressed. He either avoids conversations with people, or engages in conflict. The comedy and acting is well done from the beginning, but I still felt lost in the story. I was concerned that the entire film would play out like this: a sad Casey Affleck wandering the streets of north-eastern America alone.
To certain extent, that is how the film does play out. As you might expect, the central plot of the film is Lee Chandler reconnecting with his family after some sort of tragedy. This sort of story-arc is not uncommon, but the way that Manchester by the Sea handles its protagonist is something I haven’t seen before.
Lee Chandler is not a damaged, cynical genius who says things that might upset the audience, he is not wounded son with parental-issues, and he isn’t a war-vet dealing with PTSD. That is not to say that those kinds of characters aren’t interesting, but they are so interesting that they have been done to death, which has made them less unique over the years.
Instead, after a specific scene, we begin to unravel the tangled web of Lee Chandler’s life, and slowly discover the tragedy that affected him.
This is one of the rare occasions in which I found a single performance to be better than the film itself. Casey Affleck has a decent chance of winning the Oscar for Best Actor, and while I might not have given it to him, I cannot say this performance is not deserving of high recognition. Affleck delivers one of the most reserved performances I have seen in the past few years, and it is masterful from start to finish. Without having a major speech, or a random emotional explosion, Affleck shows the audience what Lee Chandler is thinking and how he feels.
Performances like this are rare in general, and they are rarely done well. Lee Chandler’s story is refreshingly simple, and as is Affleck’s performance. Manchester by the Sea does not have an overcomplicated story with an ambiguous ending that forces its audience to scratch their heads as soon as it is over. That is not to say that ambiguous films are bad, but at the same time I enjoyed seeing a film put more emphasis on telling its story in a unique and interesting way, than attempting to invent an abstract and eccentric narrative.
Manchester by the Film tells a simple story, but the way in which it executes its plot is genius. The film is a perfect example of cinematic realism and non-linear storytelling.
While films like The Dark Knight and Skyfall (two films which I loved) have been praised by some for introducing realism into film, Manchester by the Sea is the most realistic film I have seen in years. The dialogue does not fly from the actors’ mouths like in an Aaron Sorkin script, and the actors do not yell at one another, as they do in what I like to call a ‘give me an Oscar scene’. Again, these are not bad things to be included a film, but it was very refreshing to see something completely different.
Instead, everything from the performances to the dialogue felt like something that you would find in real life. And just like in real life, there are moments of levity between the periods of tragedy. Many films in Hollywood, even at the blockbuster level with films like Batman v. Superman, think that in order to present a gloomy story you cannot include any humor. Manchester by the Sea laughs at this notion, and despite having a depressing twist, still managed to make its audience constantly laugh. The director and writer, Kenneth Lonergan, knew that even in a story as bleak as this one, humor would still be present if it were to happen in real life.
Another great thing about Manchester by the Sea is how it unveils its story. It isn’t until halfway through the film that I learned what happened to Lee Chandler, but the moment was powerful nonetheless. I am a major supporter of non-linear storytelling, as I believe revealing information and story details out of order, when done properly, can add to the viewing experience.
But again, this is how real life is. You rarely get all the answers at once, and you don’t always know why people act the way they do. When you first meet somebody, as the audience meets Lee Chandler, you do not learn everything about them in your first encounter, but that is how films often work. It is a commonly used technique to inform the audience of the character as quickly as possible, and while it works in other films, it was great to see a film tell its story differently.
Manchester by the Sea is not as flashy as other awards contenders this year, but that is part of what makes it great.