Manchester By The Sea portrays true grief and loss amidst Hollywood’s plethora of flashy meta-films
Presently it seems that the most assured method of attaining some of that hallowed Oscar buzz is to just show a bit of self reflexivity. Look at La La Land, Birdman, Argo, The Artist. What do they all have in common? They’re all obsessed with acknowledging their own status within the Hollywood cannon, brazenly shouting “I’m a film” at you whilst relieving themselves of heavily stylised urine all over your face.
That’s not to say there’s anything particularly wrong with this — who didn’t enjoy Birdman’s kinetic exploration of film’s identity crisis or Emma Stone gleefully finding solace from a failed acting career in musical jaunts? The problem I see with this recent trend of smug winking at the audience is a twofold one: firstly the whole notion of Hollywood in film was taken to its logical extreme with Mulholland Drive, secondly that this constant barrage of films about films leave films about people forgotten in its wake.
This brings us, tentatively, to Manchester By The Sea. A far cry from bucket hats, 90’s nostalgia and Greggs, this film is unmistakably American and yet palpably un-Hollywood. Around mid-way through the film the central character, Lee (Casey Affleck), is observing three photographs of loved ones he — for reasons I won’t divulge — now is no longer in contact with. Now, many films here would play on the obvious emotional potential of this, admittedly traditional, setup. Affleck’s face, photographs, back to his face, Oscar. Instead the director Lonergan chooses to frame the scene less intrusively; we never even see the photos instead we watch as Lee observes the photographs before slowly, gently packing them away.
It is this gentleness that occupies the entire film. The aesthetic is fundamentally unaesthetic: bland, pale and grey. There are hardly any stylistic flairs, the most intrusive being a montage in which a toilet unclogs, and a five second long dream. This is no La La Land. What you are left with is a film that is unmistakably slow; you feel every minute of its two hour runtime but this is not a bad thing. This abandonment of what I would call true wankery allows the film to develop characters who are more human than any of the films I’ve mentioned so far. You can really start to tell that Lonergan is also a playwright: Manchester By The Sea employs the use of sets, props and actors to improve characterisation, to facilitate conversation under desperate circumstances and also to provide very recognisable moments of humor.
If it sounds like I’m gushing it’s because I am. What we have is a film that denies identifiable catharsis in favour of relatable failure. For this reason, for its honesty and patience, Manchester By The Sea won’t win the best picture. But that doesn’t really matter, the film succeeds in portraying a subtle, believable experience of loss. Maybe I’m a miserable loser who likes miserable things but chances are you’re a miserable loser too. So. Watch. This. Film.