It’s always worth celebrating when a film comes along that completely blows you away. You rarely see it coming, and it rarely has any of the blowy things you’d think a film would need to have in order to lift you off your feet. Manchester By The Sea has no overt blowiness at all: no pivotal scenes or set pieces, no speeches or grandstanding, no urgency or imposition. It is hushed, understated and in absolutely no rush at all. It is also easily one of the most impressive and compelling films I’ve seen in the past few years.
The story sees Casey Affleck return to his rural hometown to take care of his family’s affairs following the death of his brother. Simultaneously confronted with long-buried memories and new responsibilities, he struggles to come to terms with – and move on from – a tragic and haunted past. If that sounds melodramatic or mysterious, it’s because it wouldn’t be fair for me to deprive you of the perfectly-structured plotting. But in fact one of the most remarkable things about this film is just how well it defuses potential melodrama in favour of a far more naturalistic and introspective thesis on tragedy.
This film is about death and grief, yes. But it’s much more specific and focused than that: it’s a very considered reflection of how many men – yes, men in particular – deal with grief. How they approach relationships, process emotion, and communicate. This film is not about its women. Michelle Williams is incredible but little more than a cameo, while the other female figures are equally peripheral. There is a time and a place to protest this gender disparity in Hollywood, but this film is not it. This film is very deliberately about archetypal masculine interaction.
It is in fact one of the best films about masculinity that I’ve ever seen. Could there be an argument that its gender sociology is outdated or regressive? If it was trying to make a sociological point, then yes – but it’s not. It adheres to archetypes to find human truths, and though they may neither be true of all men or only men, they are undoubtedly true. This is an exploration of repression, of guilt, of impotence, of depression. Of self-destruction as a form of punishment.
If it all sounds grimly turgid, then be reassured that this is captivating film-making. There is lightness in the air – gorgeous skies and open waters that reduce the claustrophobia. The camera pulls back to give the characters space, watching over them from afar. There is lightness in the script too – silence instead of words, or surprising humour to pull you back from each emotional precipice. Director and screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan has produced a near-perfect screenplay, telling more through gaps in speech and partially audible conversations than most films manage with pages of exposition.
Lonergan understands that the significant pieces of our life are far from indivisible, instead composed of much smaller building blocks. Here he puts a microscope on large truths and surveys their molecular structure instead, each atomic-level vignette offering a fragment of a perspective. The insignificant idiosyncrasies of life are magnified and shown to be all that makes up the significant whole.
What else? Affleck is immense – now the only legitimate contender for Best Actor. Those in his close orbit raise their game to match him. The editing is both surprising and organic. (One sudden cut from Affleck to his family home is a gut-wrenching jolt – a thoroughly effective jump scare that is deeply affecting and un-cued by music or dialogue.) Information is revealed judiciously to allow for both tension and comprehension. There is no audience manipulation, nor patronisation. Save for a brief dream sequence that constitutes possibly the film’s only noticeable mis-step, the tone is expertly judged and consistent.
I could go on. But you will know by now if you want to see this film. It isn’t always easy and it isn’t always fun. I would not criticise those who find it ultimately oppressive, though I had at the last a sense of deeply cathartic liberation. By no means is this a film for everyone. It is nevertheless a certain masterpiece.