The human experience is nearly inexplicable. When you ask an athlete what it was like to win the Super Bowl, they will say it was like something else. Winning the Super Bowl was maybe like falling in love for the first time. But then what does it feel like falling in love? Perhaps like waking up on Christmas morning every day. But what is that?
To express our feelings and experiences, human beings have to compare their experiences and sensations to other universal items. This is the very essence of what art is.
The art of the story is meant to express the inner life in a way that the viewer can understand; stories evoke emotions and make us think about things that the artist thinks are salient.
The 2016 film “Manchester by the Sea” – for which its star Casey Affleck and writer/director Kenneth Lonergan recently won Academy Awards – is a singular case study in the evocation of emotion through art — namely the emotion of misery.
The film centers on the events following the death of protagonist Lee Chandler (Affleck)’s older brother after a long battle with congestive heart failure. The entire situation is complicated when Lee learns that he has been named his nephew’s guardian following the death of his father. As Lee is learning about his new guardianship, the viewer is intermittently and discordantly taken into Lee’s past where we learn that Lee was responsible for the death of his three children and the subsequent liquidation of his marriage. This new fatherhood is opening up the scars of Lee’s past life as the movie unfolds.
The film is persistent in the way it drives the viewer’s soul into the abyss. While not a tearjerker, the film certainly sits with the viewer, darkening their every interaction for at least the next 24 hours. Lonergan gets emotion across loud and clear.
In a normal film, the tension of the sorrow of the film would be lifted by way of a happy ending. Not “Manchester by the Sea.” There are no easy answers in this movie. We see Lee struggle with his new responsibility as guardian the entire movie until, ultimately, he cannot overcome his past.
Lee succumbs to his despair and has Patrick adopted by a family friend so that he may go back to living his old life as a minimum wage maintenance worker in apartment buildings. The tension is never relieved and the viewer is sat squirming in his seat well after the credits have begun to roll.
The true emotion of the film comes with the central moment of Lee’s life, the accidental death of his three children. After a party, the house was cold and Lee stoked a roaring fire to keep the house warm but forgot to put the screen on the fireplace. Drunk and high, he left the house to go for a walk to the local convenience store and, upon his return, found the house in flames.
Before the incident, Lee was an affable man who loved playing with his children. From that moment on, Affleck played Lee with inward turning eyes. It was as if he wasn’t actually seeing or feeling anything. With the knowledge he couldn’t undo the decisions he made, he was left as a virtual zombie, cursed to suffer for the rest of his life.
Cynics might argue that Affleck and the film as a whole were just an exercise in “being sad” for two hours and fifteen minutes, but I could not disagree more. Affleck turned in a truly sublime performance, the best I could think of since Daniel Day Lewis’s ineffable performance as the eponymous Lincoln in 2012. Almost all of Affleck’s portrayal of his character was done physically.
Lonergan created characters that were hyper-realistic. Undoubtedly, he has a preoccupation with the quotidian. Each character had a profoundly difficult time expressing him or herself. Each lived their lives internally with the viewer only seeing the very tip of the iceberg.
In watching this film, you will see no lyrical soliloquy as if you were watching something by Eugene O’Neill or Arthur Miller. You will see average people doing average things. You will see Lee and Patrick driving to and from social engagement; you will see Lee forget where he parked the car; you will see Lee acting petty and not letting Patrick have his girlfriend over and it isn’t some plot device to be resolved later, it just happens.
Lonergan has clearly created a universe in which the transcendent moments of grace we are used to seeing in movies do not exist because, in real life, they so rarely do. In reality, situations are rarely tied up neatly with a bow leaving all parties involved satisfied. In real life, people fail. They fail to overcome their demons and go back to living their lives alone, sequestered within themselves.
The stories of people’s lives rarely end with the guy getting the girl. This film leaves the viewer stewing in the tension it created because we know this is the way it would really end. In real life, people make terrible mistakes that they can never expiate themselves from. “Manchester By The Sea” is not an entertaining distraction from everyday life. It is everyday life.
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