What is most effective and affecting about Manchester by the Sea is what is not said.
It seems a strange thing to note of an Oscar-caliber drama, but one of the most striking aspect of Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by Sea is the sound design. Sound carries repeatedly in the film. A recurring motif of Manchester by the Sea is the thinness of the walls, as characters eavesdrop on one another and overhear conversations in adjoining rooms and spaces. However, it is more than that. When the characters retreat into silence, the world almost seems to swallow them whole.
As one character discusses funeral arrangements on the phone, other characters prepare breakfast around him; the sound of the bowl hitting the table, of the rice crackling in the milk, of the chair scraping off the ground, of the spoon hitting teeth. Attending the funeral, the eulogies are drowned out by the dull recurring buzz of a mobile phone on vibrate. When another character walks by a graveyard, he picks up a stick so that he might strum it against a fence to generate some ambient noise.
Sound designer Jacob Ribocoff does amazing work in bringing the environment to life around the film’s central characters. Manchester by the Sea is light on dialogue, with Casey Affleck conveying an incredible array of emotions through a carefully restrained performance. Affleck’s performance is not perfect, but one that exists in harmony with the sounds around him. Manchester by the Sea is not just a film that breaths. It is a film that sings in its own unique way.
The material story of Manchester by the Sea is fairly conventional. Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a Boston janitor who is forced to return home due to a tragedy in his immediate family. Unexpectedly, Lee finds himself tasked with acting as the legal guardian to his young nephew Patrick. Inevitably, Patrick’s return home reawakens old memories and forces him to confront his own darkest moments. As the layers are peeled back, his history with the town is slowly revealed.
Manchester by the Sea is a portrait of Massachusetts manhood, unfolding somewhere between forty-five and ninety minutes outside of the Boston characterised in relatively recent prestige (and would-be-prestige) pictures like The Town, The Departed, Spotlight, Black Mass and Mystic River. That measure seems about right. Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is perhaps closer to the cinematic Massachusetts sketched in Good Will Hunting, where tragedy is a dominant but not overwhelming force.
Indeed, the weakest element of Manchester by the Sea is this portrayal of masculine stoicism, the cliché of the man suffering in silence through grunts and despairing glances. Casey Affleck is great in the role, the film’s investment in Lee’s silent suffering occasionally threatens to veer into self-parody. As such, Lonergan’s script is smart to occasionally puncture this sense of self-flagellation by allowing other characters like Patrick to acknowledge the absurdity of it and by occasionally playing Lee’s withdrawn nature for black comedy.
Manchester by the Sea is at its strongest in the way that it captures the ambient moments that exist in the space between tragedy and heartbreak. Manchester by the Sea deals with some pretty grim subject matter, and goes to some pretty dark places, but those more heart-rending moments are juxtaposed with absurd comedy. Sometimes that comedy is almost pitch black, leaving the audience unsure whether to laugh or to cry. A horrific loss is followed by an extended sequence of a malfunctioning gurney from a bad prop comedy.
There is a strong humanity to Manchester by the Sea, lingering in the space between the characters and crowding around Lee’s monosyllabic statement. It is not rendered in verbose terms. It is offered in a stoic and respectful manner, in the mere act of emotional and physical presence. Manchester by the Sea never loses itself in monologues or dialogue; most of its dialogue-heavy scenes are shot at middle- to long-distance to emphasise that the particulars of what is being said is less important than the fact that the characters are together.
At one point, his anxiety over his loss triggered by the most absurd symbolism, Patrick nearly has a panic attack. Lee does not know what to say, but he knows what to do. “I’m not going to bother you,” he promises, drawing the chair out from Patrick’s desk. “But I am going to sit here until I’m sure that you are okay.” As Manchester by the Sea unfolds, the audience comes to understand how and why Lee has come to appreciate the importance of presence and the necessity of that unspoken support.
The casting is superb, particularly Affleck’s complex and layered central performance. However, Manchester by the Sea is a relatively rare portrait of grief that makes a point to divest itself from its characters, to contextualise its performances. The production on the film is top notch, particularly the aforementioned sound design by Jacob Ribocoff and the production design by Ruth De Jung. Jody Lee Lipes’ cinematography understands that the surroundings are as much a character as the leads, and that space does not need to be crowded.
Manchester by the Sea is a powerful film, exploring ideas of grief and loss in a thoughtful and nuanced manner. It might not be the most verbose move to wrestle these ideas, but it is among the most eloquent.