Death. It is often as hard for the witnesses. The sudden void, the unforeseen change in plans that it thrusts upon. Dealing with a series of deaths and their associated agony, there is something awfully unnerving about the way writer-director Kenneth Lonergan crafts his third feature Manchester by The Sea. Akin to top Oscar contenders every year, the film is high on emotional quotient with some ingenious material on papers. In protagonist Lee Chandler’s (Casey Affleck) listless life, everything that could possibly go wrong does so. Right from establishing his profession as a janitor, we know this man deserves a lot more love than we are ready to fund.
As the narrative quips through one tear-jerking event after another, the tale veers into us several what-could-have-beens. While it is easy to buy Lee and his devastated heart, it also makes us rethink how we underestimate a man coming to terms with agony – more so when it’s borne out of his own action. Lonergan’s Lee is a numb human being. There is a certain level of disgust we feel out of his profession and then we watch Lee execute it with staunch indifference. He engages in bar brawls and we empathize knowing the deep grief he lugs within.
Kenneth Lonergan makes sure to explore tension in Lee and his relationships – one being with his nephew who himself is battling the sudden change of guardianship and, yes, his eager teenage hormones as well. Lee’s relationship with his ex-wife Randi is also dissected with maturity. With the way their final meeting culminates, it is impossible to not shed a tear or two. There are subplots that show us life and its truly nasty picture. Case in point being Lee’s status quo with Elise (Gretchen Mol, as Patrick’s estranged alcoholic mother). With the way how things turned out in his past, one wonders if Lee had any authority to commend on parenting, to begin with. Interspersed with contrasting flashbacks from Lee’s happier times, Lonergan tries to sprinkle his narrative with occasional humour which works to a reasonable extent. The subtle knock on spirituality and religion is also worth noticing.
Essentially a coming-to-terms drama, it is not that we haven’t heard similar stories before. In spite of that, one must agree that the film is completely a writer’s victory. Through his meaty, life-like characters, Kenneth Lonergan directs the film with absolute understanding, setting the mood right and, more importantly, without overdoing great possibilities to melodramatize long sequences. Lonergan also lets his cinematographer (Jody Lee Lipes) be considerably indulgent. His still frames rarely slacken the pace but gives us room to contemplate. Editing by Jennifer Lame is topnotch as she figures out the perfect way to lace this complex, sensitive story together.
Performances are unanimously outstanding with Casey Affleck winning us over in every single frame. There is no doubt that is the actor’s finest to date and we couldn’t have asked for a less unassuming actor breathe life into Lee’s guilty soul. With his half-welled up eyes speaking volumes, Affleck’s tremendous performance is a clear surprise for moviegoers this year. Michelle Williams is fantastic in a brief role. Lucas Hedges is perfect as the rebellious teenager and the rest of the cast lend able support.
Without a doubt, Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is 2016’s must-watch weepie that is unselfish while being so. The quiet finale leaves you with hope – for the characters and, in a way, for yourself. Whatever your story might be.
(‘Manchester by the Sea’ was the Closing Film at the 18th MAMI Mumbai Film Festival with Star held from 20-27 October 2016.)
The film is now streaming on YouTube.