Manchester by the Sea (2016)

A stunningly well-realised, haunting, painfully real depiction of grief and depression. To me, “Manchester by the Sea” at times seemed to transcend the whole medium of film, and becoming instead just a completely genuine representation of life in all its tragedy and comedy. It’s a remarkably honest film.

The dark comedy is a vital part of why everything feels so authentic. There’s no pure tragedy or comedy here, there’s just…life. A horrifyingly brutal tragedy is followed by a comically awkward failed attempt to get a stretcher onto an ambulance. Characters trade quips and barbs almost unthinkingly after family deaths, in the way people really do talk after such things, not in a cloying melodramatic way other types of films might depict.

While the acting is truly brilliant (Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams are jaw-droppingly fantastic in this, their scene together near the end the highpoint of the film), the script is just as brilliant, and the direction is great more often than not, it’s the underlying mundanity beneath it all from where the film draws its greatest triumph, its enormous feeling of authenticity.

The sound design contributes greatly to that feeling of authenticity, with a never-ending barrage of the actual sounds of life filling up nearly every scene, at points where most films would use a defter or more controlled hand. This makes the few moments where very obvious, very canned sound effects used all the more grating. The score also was a major problem for me at least – it’s utterly melodramatic, bizarrely at odds with all the strengths of the movie, and nearly ruins one of the film’s greatest scenes, as its unnecessary swelling distracts from the power of the performances being shown.

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I also had some issues with the ending. While I feel like in story terms, it’s all mechanically earned well enough, I felt it was indecisive more in the sense of me struggling to understand the point the director was trying to make (if indeed they were trying to make one), rather than indecisive in the sense of life not providing easy answers. The big dramatic flashback around halfway through the film very much states that there’s no easy answers, there’s not even “punishment” for monstrous tragedy when it only occurs from happenstance through mundanity.

Interviews I’ve read after watching the film indicate it was more the latter, which works much better for the film, but I don’t think that was established clearly enough in the ending as is. The film not indulging in melodrama and obvious choices conforming to “stories” as we know them, instead just displaying life as it is, was the great triumph of it, and I’m not criticising that – I’m criticising the way some ending scenes seemed to obliquely start indulging into that more prescriptive method of storytelling (symbolism with a thrown ball, a new apartment, a ride on a boat). It felt somewhat off to me tonally, but the director’s words seem to indicate my preferred reading was what was intended, so I do think in the abstract the ending was a powerful, authentic statement, just not that it was as clearly communicated in the film as it could have been. All the more confusing because director Kenneth Lonergan displays such precise structural control in earlier moments like his very deliberate placement of flashbacks for best effect.

An exceptional, haunting, authentic depiction of grief. I give it four and a half frozen chickens, and a trip to Godspell.

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