With a multitude of award nominations under its belt (including categories such as Best Lead Performance, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Director in multiple award ceremonies), Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is one of most well received films of the year so far. This is hardly surprising, given Lonergan’s reputation for crafting deeply intricate stories with layered plot-lines and his ability to write characters with a vibrancy that is nothing short of extraordinary.
Focusing on the themes of inescapable sorrow, personal redemption, and the affect lingering feelings of grief have on both a person’s relationship with themselves and other people; Manchester by the Sea is a deeply melancholic drama that explores whether or not escaping a troubled past is possible—as well as the problems that arise from juggling personal anguish with the burden of caring for others in times of mutual tragedy.
On a surface level the plot is simple: the focus is placed primarily on Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a stoic and somewhat dejected janitor living in Boston who, after the death of his brother, finds himself placed in the position of guardian for his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). However, rather than simply relying on these rather formulaic plot-points of the drama genre, Lonergan’s writing talents transform the tropes of estranged relatives and dysfunctional family dynamics into uniquely harrowing characteristics through the use of intermittent flashback segments. These sections not only affect the tone of the narrative—with their content varying from bleakly humorous episodes to harrowing snippets of Lee’s traumatic past—but also serve as a methodical way for Lonergan to further develop his characters into three dimensional figures who possess a real emotional depth.
It’s precisely the multi-dimensional aspect of its characters that makes Manchester by the Sea such a gripping drama, as Lonergan makes great efforts to explore the personalities of his supporting characters. In doing so, little touches like including a montage of the tenants living in the apartment complexes maintained by Lee and their interactions with him become much more than methods to construct a protagonist’s persona, as they contribute to the overall sense of realism that runs throughout the film.
Taking the richness of the characterisation and the sub-plots introduced by its non-linear style into account, Manchester by the Sea is by no means the simplistic film a generalised (read: spoiler free) plot summary would suggest. What is remarkable about the film’s narrative is that, for all of its busyness, its remains strong in its storytelling until its conclusion. Its multiple plot strands deal with romantic and familial relationship breakdowns, the rekindling of interpersonal connections, and the gradually unfolding mystery of Lee’s traumatic past—and yet none of these aspects feel unnecessary in their individual developments. The presence of nods to different genres (namely its comedy, romance, and crime film flavours) appear self-contained in their delivery; which only furthers the feeling that for all of its self-fracturing, the narrative is woven together tighter by the time it reaches its conclusion.
One of the most impressive elements of the film, at least in my opinion, is the way Lonergan manages to seamlessly align his various narrative arcs with the film’s visuals. The cinematography (courtesy of Jody Lee Snipes) matches the overriding sense of melancholy in its lingering movements; with a series of beautiful pillow shots that interject in the same unannounced way as the flashback sequences and effectively regulate the film’s slow-burning pace. These extended ocean and landscape shots, the majority of which are deserted, create an eeriness that permeates the film and almost acts as a means of pathetic fallacy in its underpinning of Lee’s dejection and emotional isolation.
Overall, Manchester by the Sea is a stunning example of Kenneth Lonergan’s talent for creating richly layered narratives and characters that ooze emotional resonance with ease. Alongside this, and what’s already an impressive film in terms of its plot and script is only elevated further by its phenomenal casting—most notably Casey Affleck’s portrayal of Lee, which is arguably a career-best performance—and its ability to fit snugly into its 2hr 17min run-time without appearing rushed or lagging.
If the film has any real message or moral to its seemingly ever-trudging despondency, it’s undoubtedly that while some sorrows are inescapable—albeit regardless of whether they are the result of personal mistakes or simply a change in circumstance—there remains a possibility for slightly better days to occur amidst the bad, even if it seems like things won’t ever change.