The snow builds up, refusing to melt. It’s innocent, calming white like a cruel joke. Light glistens off the water gently rocking a lonely boat as if encouraging it along, but the quiet, relaxing solitude – only being pierced by yelping and laughter – seems too inexplicably good. A pregnant nothingness surrounds all empty spaces.
This is the story of one man’s quiet attempt to sink into permanent solitude, to dissolve into the icy New England air and be one with the nothingness of the sky. Only the world won’t let him. This is a quiet but devastating film, where the world around Casey Affleck’s Lee almost mocks him. The ruthless, emotionless efficiency of death and horror conflates with the ostensibly simple existence of life by the shore.
Manchester By The Sea is a film about silent pain, how it eats away at us, how being permanently heartbroken becomes a sort of disease rendering us forever internal. This is a film so raw, like an open wound being picked at, that it renders the viewer into an odd state of numbness. It makes us remember everything horrific that has ever happened in our lives and boils it down into just another jut in the road.
Grieving becomes a hidden, visceral cyst as death is dealt with through signing papers, doctors explaining funeral services, unexpressive questioning and hollow words. Everything boils down into simply part of our story, to be worked through and worked past, to eventually wait for the next one until there are no more.
This is an incredibly hard film to articulate why it is so fantastic. Director, Kenneth Lonergan, has a habit of creating emotionally raw films (see: the sombre twin character studies in You Can Count On Me and the seismic powerlessness flowing through post-9/11 New York in Margaret). He’s not flashy, nor does he indulge in cheap gimmicks to extract emotion from his audience, but there’s always a very real heartbeat permeating through his films.
Manchester By The Sea is like the visualisation of the pain running through our veins, a film that can only be felt rather than analysed. The seemingly mundane lives of people existing in the corner of the world, the ubiquitous sea always urging them to drift away, become the centre of our attention for over two hours. The film is so immersive that we feel each and every ounce of pain like we’ve known these people for years.
Casey Affleck‘s performance is one for the ages. In a world where major acting awards are often handed to recipients who go through dramatic body alterations, play a real life figure or depict a disability, it would be a pleasant surprise to see Affleck take home some statues this award season for his internalising, angsty performance.
It’s arguably harder to play a character with very little traits or ticks, yet Affleck depicts every crushing emotion via what feels like nothing. Head bobs, voice cracks and silent contemplation, yet we never feel left outside of his headspace. We are behind his eyes, and feel every blow to his psyche without him having to say much at all.
The film is sad, sure, but that shouldn’t be the defining crux of it. There are so few films that can truly exhibit such powerful reactions within the human soul that when one comes around it should be celebrated. Manchester By The Sea is flesh and blood cinema; life on screen. The fleeting highs and the devastating lows.