Manchester By The Sea is an incredibly unsympathetic and haunting film. So much so that it actually makes you feel cold inside through its use of setting, tone, score and shot composition. Kenneth Lonergan creates this blurred, yet crystal clear world where what isn’t said matters so much more than what is. This is only enhanced by a flawless performance by Casey Affleck to create one of the most emotionally draining films of the year.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a quiet and reserved janitor in Boston when he suddenly receives a phone call about his brothers sudden passing. From here he is whisked away into responsibilities that he isn’t capable of dealing with. Lee is cold, unresponsive and generally distant from others, yet we learn throughout the film of his tortured past which leads him to become this shell of a man. Within his brother’s will, Lee is left to be the legal guardian of his only son, Patrick. The story follows the life of them both as they struggle to communicate and make the arrangement for the father’s funeral.
Casey Affleck gives the performance of his career, channelling all the loathing and self-hatred Lee feels into a distant yet striking presence. I expected at some point for Lee to break, to tip over the edge, yet he doesn’t (Apart from punching random me in bars). He remains quiet, calm and barely speaks above a whisper as he presents this broken man plodding through life with no real purpose. This directly contrasts with flashback sequences that show an outgoing and free spirited Lee and it’s the dark secret that lurks between these two bookmarks that leads to the movies most haunting scene.
As mentioned earlier, the film is incredibly cold. The setting of Boston in winter combined with beautiful shots the pier leave a breeze flowing through every scene. Dialogue is sparse and important conversations are filmed far away with muffled, yet slightly audible sound, making the audience as distant as Lee is to his surroundings. This makes character scenes blurred and empty, which directly contrasts and compliments the landscape shots of the sea, which are crystal clear, yet still empty. The past Lee shares with Manchester-by-the-Sea constantly weighs on his mind, overshadowing the present.
The score goes from nothing at all to booming operatic and orchestral music, elevating the emotional beats and making the film feel like an epic Greek tragedy. It is here where the film really shines, the music drowns out any dialogue and makes the audience focus on what isn’t being said which, throughout the film, is so much more heartfelt, powerful and meaningful than what is.
There are characters, such as Lee’s ex-wife (Michelle Willaims), that were portrayed so wonderfully, that I wished there were more scenes with her in, the help flesh out the road to isolationism that Lee ends up taking.
Manchester By The Sea is an incredibly powerful film that explores isolationism and its causes with such nuanced performances by the likes of Casey Affleck that it left me hollow upon its conclusion. There aren’t many words to describe how it made me feel other than, what I’ve said over and over, cold. Very cold.