Why ‘Manchester by the Sea’ is a modern American classic

Manchester-by-the-Sea-2016

The most mentally taxing thing for any actor to do, I imagine, is enacting grief. So tricky is this particular area that some actors, upon losing control, come off as hammy or tend to overdo it. This is not the case, however, with Casey Affleck. He has now become part of that rare and distinctive group of actors who have expertly mastered the art of subtlety. In Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, the actor is so impressive that you can read every line of thought that is going on his mind just by looking at his face. His way of emoting has a hypnotizing quality to it (especially his vacant stare).

The film is about two people who react to loss in two different ways. One of them is Casey’s Lee, who has just lost his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) to congestive heart failure. The other one is Joe’s son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who is surprisingly taking his father’s demise quite well. Joe has named Lee as Patrick’s legal guardian in his will – an unwelcome prospect for Lee. Patrick seems to be more concerned about scoring with his two girlfriends – both living in two different locations – than the thought of accompanying his uncle to funeral parlors and filling out all the paperwork. He becomes a major annoyance for his uncle and there are several moments where things get really heated between them, but also quite emotional too.

Lee has a perfectly good reason why he doesn’t want to take care of Patrick and we learn that in a small, devastating flashback. There are several flashbacks within the film which appear sporadically, each one patiently revealing why Lee has turned out this way. Once a lively young man, he is now lonely and so overwhelmed by mental anguish that you wonder how he doesn’t lose his balance under the weight of all the hefty emotions simmering inside him. He isn’t longing for human company anymore. We learn that he was once involved in a turbulent marriage with Randi (Michelle Williams). She is now pregnant with someone else’s child. And Joe’s formerly alcoholic wife is also married to someone else.

Everyone is broken and suffering in silence, trying so hard to fix themselves but there seems to be no end to their pain. These characters are as real as they come, especially Lee – you don’t feel like he is a fictitious character. The self-destructive streak in him occasionally gets him in pointless bar fights which always work in favor of those he picks to fight with. There is one particular sequence where he reminded me of Christopher Walken from The Deer Hunter. But Lonergan makes everything so tolerable and compelling by infusing some unexpected – and much needed – humor into the gloom. His camera doesn’t linger on the tragic bits too long – just enough to give us a sense of what has transpired.

Not every filmmaker has the talent of pulling off something like this. Lonergan’s screenplay deftly balances humor and pathos and it wouldn’t have worked as much if it were in less capable hands. This film is all about the performances and doesn’t distractingly call much attention to its technical details (as La La Land did). It belongs to the same genus as some of the great American classics of the 70s. (Lee’s interactions with Patrick slightly evoked Dustin Hoffman and Justin Henry in Kramer vs Kramer.) This film belongs entirely to Casey. I expect the judges to rightly reward him with the Academy Award for Best Actor come February 26th.

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