Manchester by the Sea, the latest film from Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me, Margaret), tells the story of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) as he deals with his brother’s death and a past tragedy that continually affects him. After brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies, Lee is informed that he will be sole guardian of Joe’s son Patrick (Lukas Hedges), who is aged sixteen in the film’s present day.
Manchester by the Sea is almost entirely framed in static medium shot and its steady, unembellished rhythm verges on slowness. Even before the event of the brother’s death, we can determine a grief quietly absorbing Lee, a quality that constitutes the very core of his being. Affleck performs this alienated state with nuance and precision, every movement describing a man detached from a world which others seem to inhabit with comfort. This sense which emits from Lee denotes a burning lack buried deep inside his psyche. Despite our ignorance concerning the events that have sprouted such characteristics (we are illuminated to them in the second half of the movie), in Lee we clearly recognise the physical embodiment of repressed emotions. His quietly raging body is both strong and weak, fragile and aggressive. We witness these conflictual traits in an early scene where Lee, sitting in a bar sipping from a solitary drink, suddenly tips into an explosive energy and punches a stranger in the face.
We share the memory together, a memory which is not tethered to one body nor contained inside a singular point of view.
The past unfolds within the present day as if cut from the same cloth with no nostalgic flashbacks or differing visual rhetoric. We know when we are situated in the past because Lee is shown as happy. These scenes open up during moments of quiet contemplation, when it feels we are staring into space and staring into nature. Our eyes, along with Lee’s, might rest on a snowy ground through a window. We share the memory together, a memory which is not tethered to one body nor contained inside a singular point of view.
A trail of narrative breadcrumbs comprised of background chatter and overheard phone calls in casual environments leads you, unknowingly, toward the main “revelation”. Upon second viewing, these poignantly appear as evidence, clues, ephemeral allusion to the event that has already happened to Lee but is yet to be explained to the audience. In an early scene we watch Lee complete maintenance work in various apartments. Seemingly off-hand conversations populate the diegesis which, alongside the janitorial duties Lee performs, are later recognised emblematic and contextually tethered to the film’s tragic centre.
Both tragedy and humour share a similar register, neither triumphing, neither jolting us out of our absorbed bodies with a crash of laughter or sobs. A chuckle and a tear – both appear on our faces, from our watching eyes, our unclenched mouths. Past and present, joy and sadness, all are harmonised by even tonality. Manchester by the Sea softly interrogates an ultimate loss entrenched inside its characters through narrative and formal steadiness that resists the peaks and troughs of mainstream or traditional drama.