Manchester by the Sea

Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea. (AP)
Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges in Manchester by the Sea. (AP)

What it's about:

The life of a solitary Boston janitor is transformed when he returns to his hometown to take care of his teenage nephew. The story of the Chandlers, a working-class family from a Massachusetts fishing village, is a deeply poignant, unexpectedly funny exploration of the power of familial love, community, sacrifice and hope. After the death of his older brother Joe, Lee Chandler is shocked to learn that Joe he’s been made sole guardian of his nephew Patrick.  Taking leave of his job, Lee reluctantly returns to Manchester-by-the-Sea to care for Patrick, a spirited 16-year-old, and is forced to deal with a past that separated him from his wife Randi and the community where he was born and raised.

What we thought:

Manchester by the Sea, for this reviewer at least, is a classic case of a film that is immensely admirable and yet all but impossible to even remotely like, let alone love. It's a film that has been nominated for countless awards and absolutely deservedly so as it is an exquisitely put together and flawlessly acted near-masterpiece – and I detested very nearly every moment of it.

This isn't so much like films that are impossible to enjoy because of their subject matter but are richly rewarding viewing experiences anyway (see Schindler's List, 12 Years a Slave) but more like something like Raging Bull – Martin Scorsese's 1980 tour de force that may be a true masterclass in filmmaking but its main character was such an unrepentant tool that spending even a minute in his company strained my patience and tolerance well beyond breaking point.

Even “objectively”, Manchester by the Sea isn't in the same class as Raging Bull as it is a far more meandering piece of work that never fully achieves its presumed goals but it's actually not a bad comparison. Both films are tough, unforgiving works whose main protagonists are so hard to sympathise with that even the most horrifically tragic things that befall them fail almost entirely to register at all. Casey Affleck is undeniably brilliant here but I hated his character with a passion that surprised me.

Manchester by the Sea is a cold, cold film with a bleak (but occasionally funny) sense of humour and a stark refusal to give so much as an inch to sentimentality, which may be admirable from a dispassionate point of view but, considering how light on plot it is and how slow it moves, its steadfast refusal to give the audience – or at least this audience of one – a way in, ultimately stops it from ever truly connecting.

Manchester by the Sea's central theme of loss and grief, specifically centred on the loss of a father, is sadly something I can relate to and, to its credit, it did hit me on an uncomfortably visceral level just by virtue of how honest and unflinching it is. And yet, though this may be an undeniably impressive, if unwelcome feat, its ability to hit me on a highly uncomfortable gut level was not leavened by moving me on an emotional level.

The difference between “gut” and emotional responses might seem like little more than a distinction of syntax but it's more profound than that. The perfect way to illustrate this would be to compare Manchester by the Sea with the Buffy: The Vampire Slayer episode, The Body. Both works deal with grief head on and both Manchester's Kenneth Lonergan and Buffy's Joss Whedon direct their stories in a way that allows the grief to come through largely unencumbered by the more obviously manipulative tricks that film makers have up their sleeves - both, incidentally, largely through minimal - or no - music and long, still shots. 

The difference, though, is that because Buffy had you invested in its characters, The Body managed to be both disturbingly realistic in its portrayal of grief, shock and loss but also so profoundly, beautifully moving that I have watched it at least a half dozen times and gotten plenty out of it each time. Manchester by the Sea may technically be on a whole other level to what was, after all, a modestly budgeted network TV show but however much it repulsed me on a nearly unconscious level, it provided little else beyond a cinephile's unquestionable admiration. 

On an intellectual level, even, I spent far more time curious about the major differences between how Jews mourn their dead and the way the characters in the film did than anything that was actually happening in and of the film itself. On an emotional level, though, things were significantly worse as I had nothing to go with that subliminal revulsion; not sadness, not happiness, not sympathy or even pity and certainly not catharsis. Boredom on occasion, sure, but not much else.

All this said, though, I can't help but give it such a high score. I may have hated it but I can't deny the talent both in front of and behind the camera any more than I can deny my respect and admiration for what it accomplishes even on a highly uncomfortable gut level. Further, because most (though not all, by any means) of my problems with the film are purely subjective and emotional in nature, I can't deny that others may not share my own personal emotional viewpoint on this film in particular. Indeed, considering how much other reviewers haven't just sung its praises but admitted that it moved them profoundly, I know for a fact that it clearly works for many people.

Don't, however, say I didn't warn you.

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