By: Muneeb Arshid
There are very few times when the word ‘perfect’ is thrown around, that it actually means to be exactly that for a film: Perfect. I, for one, hate giving out perfect scores for movies because it requires a lot of work on the film’s part to achieve that mark.
For a film to be perfect, it has to have the most engaging and well-drawn characters, a narrative that makes sense from start to finish but is also gripping in its nature, the score and cinematography have to both complement each other but also complement the characters and the narrative. Manchester by the Sea is one film that fits the criteria rather perfectly.
Manchester by the Sea is the latest drama from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan starring Casey Affleck who plays Lee Chandler, an introverted man who has seen better days in his life, currently working in Boston doing handiwork jobs here and there. His life completely changes (for a second time!) after he learns of the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and must take some time to manage everything post-Joe’s death. Included in this “unwanted” package for Lee is having to take care of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who is not thrilled to see his Uncle back in Manchester but is also someone who is having a tough time dealing with his father’s death but is trying to keep a strong face in a very teenage style of way. For Lee, on top of being forced to take care of his nephew and arrange the funeral services for his brother, he is also having to deal with the demons of his past living in Manchester. Through the flashbacks in the film, we come to understand why Lee’s character has become so introverted and withdrawn from society. A key reason to that is his relationship or lack thereof with his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and the flashbacks do a wonderful job in explaining the reason as to the utter lack of motivation emanating from Lee.
The progression of the story with the interlacing flashbacks is done quite flawlessly yet at the same time being dropped into the film without any pretentions of easing the crowd into it. Obviously including Joe in the flashbacks really helps tell what period the film is in, but there are dramatic shifts in tone, both visually and narratively that give away the film taking place in the past and the present. The flashbacks themselves start off showing Joe and Lee’s close relationship as they literally did everything together, and also showed Lee’s rather close relationship with the younger Patrick. However, all his relationships went down the gutter after a major event that ruins his relationship with Randi which cascades through the rest of his life. The wonderful way the “major event” is revealed causes a massive emotional upheaval to the film. Up to, and after the event, the film is surprisingly a very funny film, with a very light mood but with the underpinning of something that could go wrong. However the introduction of the event involves a perfect transition from a musical point of view, moving from a jovial scene involving Lee partying late night with friends, to an orchestral heavy score accompanying Lee’s biggest horror being revealed in front of him. The shifts in tone are momentary (long moments, yet only momentary) as the film regains its composure and reverts back to the tone “pre-major event”. A major reason for this lack of a down spiral towards an even more of a depressing route is the character of Patrick and his relationship with Lee. The relationship between the two is initially quite tense, however, the humanity in it begins to reveal itself as the two are “forced” to deal with each other. Their past relationship when Patrick was younger begins to shine through and really show how close the two were while Joe was alive. It is also the realization on Lee’s part that he now has to be the “parent” of a 16-year-old teenager and deal with the going ons of a popular high school athlete who has many “close” but sneaky relationships.
One scene of note is the major interaction between Williams’ character Randi and Lee in the present day. There’s a point in their conversation that Randi is willing to forgive and forget and move on. But for Lee, it is a point of realization that the demon he is trying to absolve himself of cannot truly be forgotten if he doesn’t move on from that point. The words “We can’t have lunch” will never hit you any harder than they do in this film, and for Lee, it is all for the better.
So it is a perfect story with perfect characters, and if there were any flaws, I’m willing to overlook them at this point. Even though those two elements make up a majority of a film, some of the best films will tend to have great cinematography and score supporting the film or else there’s only so far that the story or the characters will take it. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes takes his time lingering on each and every shot to allow the viewer to fully absorb the setting. Using a mixture of long horizontal shots of the beautiful coast of Manchester-by-the-Sea and close-up shots of individual characters, each and every shot has a meticulous feel of touch where Lipes has spent long periods of time planning each out. The use of colours is also very well done, using a brighter colour palate in many of the “happier” flashback sequences, while using a darker filter for the rest of the film depicting the grimness of the film.
The music by Lesley Barber can only be explained as being the literal meaning of “music to your ears”. Grim sequences are handled with the heavy-handedness of an entire orchestral piece depicting to the viewer very bluntly that something bad is happening. Now, that might seem out of place for a quiet drama, but the music works absolutely wonderfully. The greatest acclaim to the music is how seamlessly it weaves together the plot and cinematography and rounds out the entire experience of Manchester by the Sea.
I really don’t want to reveal too much about the film because this is a film that everyone should experience. It’s a film that tells a story that many of us have experienced in our own lives. It doesn’t have to mirror Lee’s situation but the sense of loss is always prevalent in everyone’s life and will allow everyone watching to connect with the film in many different ways. Casey Affleck puts in a performance of a lifetime playing the stoic, broken, yet resiliant Lee; a performance that is even better than his portrayal in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford but also a performance that should net him an Oscar nod come January. There are still a few months left, but I can’t think of many actors that will be able to top Affleck’s performance this year or in that case Lonergan’s direction and screenplay.
Manchester by the Sea receives the much-coveted grade and perfect score of A+ (10/10).