Vulnerability: There’s a reassuring thoughtfulness to Manchester by the Sea, a breath of fresh air that holds a candle to the film’s title. Of all my filmgoing experiences this year, with the sole exception of Moonlight, this was the one that most effectively took down my guard and made me feel vulnerable before it. Make no mistake about it: Manchester by the Sea is a great film. Through its deeply affecting character drama and nuanced presentation of loss, viewers are afforded a showcase in quality. Casey Affleck, perhaps like never before, is laid bare before us, captivating in a performance that defines his career up to this point.
Investment: What sets Manchester by the Sea apart from the rest is a question that demands more than just, “The story is moving.” Almost anybody can throw together a story that makes you weep. The question is: do you care why you are crying? Was it because the music swelled in minor? Was it the macabre visual display that hinted at the emotions you were supposed to feel? Or was it because you were legitimately invested in what was happening? When Manchester by the Sea made me cry, it was because I cared deeply about the progression of its characters and how it had all culminated in this. Without revealing any spoilers, our main character Lee (Affleck) is established as a prick who leads a lonely life working a lower-class job in Boston. By making that clear from the outset and little else, the film allows for calculated storytelling. Instead of laying the exposition on heavy and explaining why we are where we are, the film takes us on a journey of feelings and gradual character progression, one that begs the question: What makes Lee tick? When that answer finally comes, suddenly, all the cogs that were set in motion come together to form an elegant clock.
Payoff: Manchester by the Sea accomplishes the aforementioned feat by intertwining flashbacks with the present narrative. The alternative could’ve been revealing the past traumas of our main character from the beginning then time-jumping to the present. Thus creating what still might have been an affecting character work, given some of the other plot points, but lacking the concrete structure that makes the turning point of the film feel so bombastic and utterly shell-shocking in its presentation. As it exists, this effect is bolstered by the fact that we, the audience, already care deeply about Lee and are frantic with the need to understand his state of being. Yet another alternative would’ve been to journey through the present and then climax in one long flashback that finally answers our many questions. While this method is not bad by default, its effect hinders on shock value rather than emotional consummation. It becomes a moment that shatters the settled course and reveals a payoff not earned but forced. Mixing flashbacks concurrently with a present narrative is nothing new, but when properly executed, it can make for a heart-wrenching storytelling technique. If Manchester by the Sea did not present characters as deeply layered as they are, all of this would be for naught.
Reaction: Visually, this film makes choices that are both risky and strong. I’m not talking about setting. It should come as no surprise that this film’s locations are stunning in their allure, even when they are drained of color, darkened, and invoked with a grim undercurrent. I’m talking about focus. For all the film’s biggest emotional beats, we are shown little, if not none, of the events in question. Instead, we see the reactions… the aftermath and the carnage these events catalyze in our characters. In the film’s biggest storytelling moment, Lonergan chooses not to show what happened directly, but presents Lee as our “audience character.” He stumbles upon the chaos, entering it only after the worst has already passed. From there, we are given his reaction to that event. Visually, this complements a film that prioritizes characters over events and moments.
When the credits roll, the film feels complete, yet unsure in its ending: an intentional invocation of where the characters stand and where they are poised to go from here. Manchester by the Sea is a wonderful film, rendering a tale built around the people within it, which are made viable by the performers acting them out. The film is an exercise in dramatic structure that offers earned payoffs and ever-increasing emotional vulnerability. From beginning to end, this movie is captivating… a testament to the cinematic landscape of 2016 and a remarkable achievement that counts among the very best of the year.
Manchester by the Sea offers deeply affecting character drama while sacrificing none of its narrative heft or emotional payoffs. The vulnerability of the audience is in no small part due to Casey Affleck’s career-high performance.