Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea ★★★★★


After Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan's third feature film, the world stopped spinning. Of course, such an inherently hyperbolic statement comes from a place of personal connection, the typical gushing praise of having just encountered an "experience", but truly, its root is in the world which was painted before me. It seemed no different initially: seagulls swooping through the harsh winter winds, snow cascading onto the salted pavement, operatic groups of tenors and baritones providing an extraordinary backdrop for the ordinary. Such an environment exists, and it is still, uneventful, misshapen in its fractured neighborhoods and streets. It is also familiar. Familiar to people who wander a snowy path in search of late-night groceries. Familiar to people who forget where the car was parked. Familiar to people who enter a hospital in search of answers. Familiar to people who suddenly feel an irrepressible void in their hearts; a life lost. A soul wiped from time's ticking clock.

When Manchester by the Sea begins, even within the first few moments, its truth is evident. It's all there in Lonergan's images; crisp and clear - unafraid to look away from anything and anyone - but also distant. Casey Affleck's Lee soon appears on a boat yet I do not see an actor or an "Oscar-Worthy" performance being weaved. Instead I witness a person. Gentle and caring. Playful and vital. If anything, the end credits were the greatest shock to my system, as it sent a rush of remembrance of reality, a realization told through rising theater lights and the scattering of bodies towards various exit signs. From frame one to the final fade, I was positively engrossed. Hell, even *that's* an understatement, but alas, words aren't really doing the trick here.

It's easy to praise Lonergan's elegant structure, his quick-wittedness, his languid ambitions, but it's hard to tackle exactly how the comedy and the precise formal elements perfectly lower its tragic eruptions into a fully-realized cinematic purgatory. This is a movie where we go to be cleansed, to rid ourselves of baggage by empathizing with faces not unlike our own, and where it takes us is unfathomable. If humor brings joy, then grief brings lamentation, and Lonergan sees the world as a dual-sided coin, day to day. Incidents of awkwardness and annoyance do not divert the pain of sorrow - a particular feeling so sad its presence chills the heart to an icy solid - but they coexist for the sake of normalcy, an idea based around the common phrase "life goes on." in an attempt to capture the sly remove of this cruel place and morph it into something hopeful.

But Lonergan doesn't stop there. Manchester by the Sea is not only an ode to the shambling, messy specifics of a life enclosed in anguish, but also a definitive statement on the affliction of non-recovery. Grief has frequently been seen as consolable in Hollywood cinema, a valley in which we must cross to reach a better day, but Lee manifests as an endless field of barren frustrations and perpetual spouts of frail suffering. You do not rise above the past; it defines your every step and turn. Casey Affleck - in one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema - allows himself to become defined by the past of his character, and the result is utterly soul-crushing; an incarnation of successful deterioration, a body beaten by trauma.

To say more would be a great disservice to the intended revelations and the potency found in them, but each aspect in production and design in front/behind the camera are bursting with humility for its subject and its populace of characters. The entire supporting cast - Michelle Williams (in a *showstopping* role), Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler etc. - are as generous and vulnerable as you'll see in any movie. Its moments of musicality leap into your veins. Every frame is a shivering, bitter window to a reality swept into heartache, and it's real. Every man, woman, child has a story. This is the story of one of them: an individual waking up in a nightmare and going to sleep lost and alone, tired and despondent. This is one of the most gut-wrenching of all films. It's also sweet, angry, funny, mournful, and rejected. It is a great work of art, a song set to the tune of the sea; melodic, rapid, frigid, everlasting. And while it may be unsparing, its beauty rings true.

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