The Brilliance of “Manchester by the Sea”

SPOILERS FOR MANCHESTER BT THE SEA

Manchester by the Sea has won one of the most deserved Oscars this year, for both the screenplay, but most of all for Casey Affleck’s performance as Lee Chandler. In that film he plays a janitor, whose brother has passed away and now he gets to be the guardian of his nephew, but that just doesn’t fit entirely in his life.

Now there are plenty of reasons why Manchester by the Sea is a brilliant film. But I mainly want to focus on how the film managed to play on the emotional keys, and why it was able to reach the high notes. To do that, I’ll have to start with the performance of Casey Affleck. He was brilliant. His acting was superb, because of the held-back emotion you could see in him, or hardly see in him. He isn’t the person, who yells when he’s angry or sad, but just keeps it to him. He lets the pain build up inside of him. You could hardly see it, but if you pay close enough attention, you were able to see how he felt. How miserable he was. How damaged he was. His subtle movements, gestures, facial expressions… all helped with this. It was painful to see him suffer, but Casey Affleck wasn’t the only cause of this. The screenplay, written by Kenneth Lonergan, who also directed the film, was also the cause of this. The screenplay wonderfully interwove flashbacks into the story; we got to know Lee and his damaged past piece by piece, whereby you slowly start to unconsciously care more and more about him. Which is something you in the beginning of the film wouldn’t expect, because at first he just seems to be a curt man, without any chemistry or likability, but as the movie progresses, you realize that there’s more to him.  With each flashback scene they add onto the character, building up to one particular flashback. One flashback that to me was the best scene out of the film, and even gave me chills right at the end of it. That’s the link so you can watch it yourself, but it does contain spoilers, so be warned!

I absolutely love how they’ve set up that scene. Here you can see Casey Affleck broken down, right after he has come to realize that his kids have passed away. The fact that his kids have died was hart wrenching, but what’s to come only makes you hart chatter even more. He starts to explain what happened that night, notice how he doesn’t look at the two cops, he constantly looks at the table, thinking about what has happened. Whose fault it is.  The camera slowly zooms in into his face, so we are paying more attention to Casey’s performance, so it feels like we can see his emotions. After his words “I can’t remember if I put the screen on the fireplace”, there’s a pause. He knows what the cause was. He starts to feel even worse.
He looks surprised when the officers say that he doesn’t need to go to prison. But he wants to. He thinks he deserves it. They ask him if he has a ride home, but he barely responses to it, because he’s not planning for needing a ride home. He gets out of the office, and in an impulse reaches for the gun, with the score slowly building up in the background, puts it to his head, but it isn’t loaded. He wants to do it again, but by that point a bunch of cops are already there to stop him, when he hopelessly cries out the word: Please. One last cry for help. He doesn’t want to live anymore.

There are plenty of emotional scenes in this film, but that scene emotionally struck me the most. This scene also explains why Lee won’t be the guardian of Patrick, the son of his brother. It gives us a view into Lee’s mind, making us understand him more.
But it’s not these flashbacks that make Lee the saddest, it are the happiest flashbacks that make him wish he now could stop feeling emotions, because the happier flashbacks remind him of a time better than the one he’s in right now, it reminds him of a time he desires to be in, but knows he can never be in again. He wants to stop feeling emotions, but he can’t.

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Opening scene of “Manchester by the Sea” – 2016, Kenneth Lonergan

The last scene is quite similar to the beginning scene: Lee and Patrick on the boat, now they’re both older. This is not just a coincidence; it’s probably done to show that Lee’s eventually recovering piece by piece and is able to re-live the happier moments of his past, the moments on his boat.

And that’s practically the reason why I think that Manchester by the Sea is brilliant. There are of course millions of other reasons on which I could go on about for quite some time, that’s why I decided to focus on this particular part of the film. What did you think of the film? Comment down below!

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