‘Manchester by the Sea’ confronts pain honestly
Christian Bunker | Tuesday, January 24, 2017
No one can deny that the last few months have been a particularly strong period for cinema. The recent slate of offerings is objectively better than “The Angry Birds Movie,” released in May. Apart from the quality of recent films, the change in the kind of films moviegoers see is also remarkable. Just as the recent release of “La La Land” signalled the triumphant return of original musicals to cinema, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” marked the restoration of another genre: the brooding, brutally honest tragedy.
“Manchester by the Sea” is nothing if not realistic. In fact, this film seems to purposely lack all the hallmarks of filmmaking, such as plot twists, extraordinary characters, moralizing dialogue or special effects, in favor of the slings and arrows of daily life. Yet instead of producing boredom, this realism lends the movie its power.
As the plot descended into deeper tragedy, I attempted to remind myself that the events of “Manchester by the Sea” are not real — but I never really could. The subdued manner in which the main character Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) carries the burden of his pain and the slight yet noticeable anger in his actions together mirror many people in my daily life. Similarly, the normality of Chandler’s backstory makes him nearly indistinguishable from myself. As a result, the movie feels disturbingly like something from my own future.
Much can be written about the pacing of the film, but suffice it to say that if you have ever hated a Coen brothers movie, this film is not for you. The movie gradually unfolds in a way that is neither formulaic nor spontaneous. That is to say, the viewer would be hard-pressed to predict what happens next, but the subsequent events are not surprising.
The movie begins in tragedy: Informed that his brother has finally succumbed to his heart condition, the curiously antisocial Lee must return to his hometown to care for his nephew. Soon, however, this tragic but not unexpected event is eclipsed by a new catastrophe at the core of Affleck’s character. Although not the plot’s core, it hangs over the subsequent events like a dark but distant specter. Writer and director Kenneth Lonergan’s decision not to center on this tragedy is pivotal to the success of “Manchester by the Sea.” Anyone can crank out a relatable “character-tragedy-aftermath” formula, but Lonergan has decidedly rejected this archetype. Instead, he explores a time years after the tragedy, so that the pain and guilt clearly permeate Chandler’s every breath and step. Yet Chandler still breathes, still walks. That fact is the only hopeful part of the movie, yet it is a more authentic hope than any summer blockbuster could offer.
“Manchester by the Sea” is laudable for its depiction of tragedy in all its forms. This makes it even more abhorrent that Affleck, who played the wretched victim with such poise in the film, seems in real life to be the villain. Although sued by two women for sexual harassment in 2010, Affleck has yet to face serious inquiry into his conduct and character, as the press has largely refused to make a story of the lawsuits, which were settled out of court. Personally, I do not think that Affleck’s disgraceful behavior in the past somehow voids his obvious talent as an actor. However, I am fearful that as a society we often do the reverse and treat talent as an indulgence that pardons perpetrators of any serious blame. Affleck may win an Oscar this February, and he probably deserves it, but he also deserves more than a few critical headlines and a slap on the wrist for his conduct — as do many others that the court of public opinion has incomprehensibly pardoned. As “Manchester by the Sea” reminds us, the fact that tragedies happen is often beyond our control, but we can control how we respond to them.