Sunday, 9 October 2016

Film Review: Manchester by the Sea will run your tear ducts dry to the bone

Grief is a tricky emotion to portray on screen. The ordeal of bereavement can take on a multitude of forms, and the incredible range of emotions it can put you through is tough to accurately depict in film. The Babadook is a rare example that completely nails it, and it does so by focusing on a force that, for the vast majority of the film, the audience cannot tell whether or not is real. It allows the character's complexities to remain the focus of the film, but finds something to bring them out so that nothing feels forced. Kenneth Lonergan's quietly terrific Manchester by the Sea is very similar in a number of ways.

It allows its character's complexities and feelings to remain on screen at all times, it finds a way to make its characters talk and show how they feel in an organic and realistic way, and it features the relationship of an adult and a child. The difference between Manchester by the Sea and The Babadook - other than that one is an emotional drama piece and the other a primal and terrifying horror flick - is that in Lonergan's film, we are hardly ever kept in the dark as to what character's are feeling. In fact, sometimes we know what they're feeling before we know why they're feeling it. It creates a powerful mood and atmosphere, and one that remains riveting from start to finish.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), an emotionally troubled local handyman, receives a phone call telling him that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has been rushed to the hospital due to his deteriorating heart condition. By the time he arrives, his brother has passed away. Lee begins to sort funeral arrangements and inform family members, including Joe's son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). At the reading of Joe's will, Lee discovers that he has been made Patrick's legal guardian, which causes a rift between the pair as they try to work out how to live their lives in the near future.

One of Manchester by the Sea's most surprising elements is that it never feels like a bigger picture than it is. The characters never talk about anything further ahead than a few years, no one ever acts like their world is ending. In fact, the film mostly avoids big emotional climaxes altogether. It's an impressively subtle feature that, with the help of some stellar performances, delicate visual artistry and Lonergan's mostly successful screenplay, is sure to be a contender at next year's Oscars ceremony.

That isn't to say it is without its flaws, though. Lonergan's screenplay makes extremely heavy use of flashbacks to fill in the gaps in Lee's history, and while this helps the film tell its story visually rather than with a constant supply of awkward exposition, the nature of the flashbacks unwittingly forces the film into a somewhat formulaic place far too often. There are some successful uses of the flashback structure - primarily the moment in which we discover why Lee is so detached from the world, which plays out in a series of flashbacks that all occur moments after he finds out he is to become Patrick's guardian - but they mostly block the film from feeling as interesting as it could be.

Both lead characters feel disconnected from the real world, and it would be nice if the film felt just that little bit more disconnected from conventionality. It's like it sets up powerful stories, but doesn't quite have the courage to fully dive into them yet. The film is also overlong at 135 minutes, and Lee's backstory (while still emotionally devastating) feels just a bit too obvious, but this is only Lonergan's third feature. While his storytelling and structural work feel a bit uneasy, his characters, cinematography and dialogue are stunning. It's undeniable that he will work these issues out and deliver something extraordinary some time soon.

Like a handful of films lately, Manchester by the Sea's real strength comes in its performances. Affleck is astonishing in this role, which finally gives him the platform to achieve the same success as his brother. He remains mostly calm and collected throughout the film, even if we can see the cracks in his emotional stability growing bigger and bigger by the second, and whenever Lee loses control over himself and lashes out, Affleck brings precisely the correct amount of rage and anger to his character. It's an impressively controlled performance that is sure to earn him his second Oscar nomination.

Relative newcomer Lucas Hedges also shines as Patrick, bringing a deep sense of devastation to his character by managing to juggle this sadness with a quirky sense of personality in the film's lighter moments. Michelle Williams, who plays Lee's ex-wife Randi, isn't given as much to do as I expected, but when her moment in the spotlight arrives, she delivers a heartbreaking interpretation of what something like this can do to someone on the peripherals of it all. She simply stands there and talks to Lee, but when she realises she can't get through to him in the ways that she needs to, she just loses it. Williams handles the scene expertly, and leaves an astonishing impression after such little screen time.

Manchester by the Sea impressively maintains a series of tones and moods that successfully bleed into each other without doing any damage. The film can be heartbreaking in one moment, and laugh-out-loud funny the next, and none of this is better portrayed than in the devastating moment that Patrick suffers a panic attack one night. He had already expressed how much he hated the thought of his father's body lying in a freezer, and when he struggles to fit everything in his fridge-freezer at home, he loses control of his emotions. Clutching his chest and sobbing relentlessly, it's a horrific thing to watch, but amid the heartbreak it finds warmness in the ways that Lee approaches and handles the situation. After calming Patrick down, he suggests going to the hospital if Patrick is "going to have a panic attack every time he sees a frozen chicken". It evokes a big laugh after such a difficult scene to endure, but it's followed by a touching display of love as Lee sits by Patrick and refuses to leave until he falls asleep.

Manchester by the Sea may lose track of its narrative progression occasionally, but its character beats, performances and dedication to its thematic material are more confident than many directors can achieve in their tenth films, let alone their third. Lonergan is onto something fantastic here, and if this is just a stepping stone for him, then he is one to keep a close eye on.

In A Sentence

Emotionally haunting and subtly powerful, Manchester by the Sea tackles delicate themes in an appropriately moving way, and boasts Casey Affleck's best performance to date.

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