Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea ★★★★★

“Live in the moment” is a tired, saturated societal sentiment that can be categorized as a command due to how unnatural it actually is to “live in the moment.” The fact is that each human mind, life, and self requires the collection of moments, with no given day remaining uninfluenced in some way by each and every one before it. NO film brings this concept, in all of its tragic truth, so rawly to life like Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea. Casey Affleck’s insurmountably powerful performance is of Lee, a Boston janitor whom we watch experience countless tragic moments, amassing each one in the way that is only natural, the burden of life growing and growing until he can’t live a second in the present without reliving all of those torturous seconds that led him there.

Manchester has this much and more going for it emotionally, guaranteed to be an indelible film for any audience, but it also succeeds 100% in delivering on its traumatic weight in an expertly crafted experience. It would be shallow and possibly lazy for me to exclusively provide the checklist of how this film excels and soars in its acting, pacing, cinematography, writing, attention to detail, blocking, music etc… but it’s such an achievement, such a tour de force in filmmaking that it feels necessary to praise it for these perfect features and more. Every scene is laid out and executed with graceful, natural brilliance, and the whole thing looks gorgeous. This film has been constantly and rightfully lauded for its realism, because Lonergan knows how to capture authentic life naturally, revealing how often other films paradoxically contrive their organic realism. I didn’t know a film could go from realistic to real until I watched this film, and I like to think I’ve seen enough films that such a statement actually has weight.

As Lee walks through life with his soul constantly crushed by guilt and grief, the experience is so absorbing yet attentive to the real world, in a way that is difficult for most “mainstream” films to do. We usually get a picture of the real world that has us constantly thinking about what’s beyond the screen, or we get enthralled by a world so escapist in how different it is from our world—Manchester uncannily harnesses the wild vigor and rigor of life, and it leaves me awestruck with how humane an impact it had and continues to have for this reason.

Thinking of this film’s flaws (which are few, minuscule, and honestly irrelevant) feels superfluous and besides the point—critiquing this film makes me feel like a high school freshman remarking in art class that the Mona Lisa doesn’t have eyebrows. There is one legitimate “problem” with it, however, and it’s the mere fact that it’s excruciatingly hard to watch much of the time. Again, this isn’t even a palpable critique, as it’d be an understatement to call life itself “hard to watch.” It’s hard to live. Despite the depressing nature of Manchester by the Sea, which clearly understands this basic truth inside out, it still offers a whispering sense of hope, that (at the right time) is more than enough. It’s not promise, or a concrete forecast, but it’s unmistakable hope that’s too subtle to be faked. False hope isn’t this interwoven into the fabric of tragedy.

This remains true even as Lee’s grief unfolds not in definite stages, but in tumultuous waves. He isn’t equipped to fight it by himself, and is doubtful those close to him can even help, but there is always the possibility… even when he extinguishes it at every turn, inadvertently or otherwise. The viewer can have a lot to learn from seeing a melancholic soul’s inner turmoil, its manifestation in his whole life, and how much we want to help him despite his stoic rejections. Loving understanding is the clear but most deeply evoked response. It’s assumed that people know a sad movie does not instantly make a good movie, which is why I want to stress how much virtue lies with how Manchester gets in touch with this emotion, and how we can be better people for facing it. This film is undeniably, indescribably painful, and the only way I keep feeling compelled to revisit it is because of the humane way it both provides and demands understanding and empathy, in a way so in touch with the real world that it is like meeting a speaker of a common spiritual language. It’s grounding and sobering to go to Manchester, by the sea of memory and hurt crashing against the rocks.

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