Manchester by the Sea twists Hollywood movie expectations


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Jacob Strier, Contributing Writer

Rolling Stone called Manchester by the Sea, a 2016 film, a “transcendent masterpiece,” and it truly is in every sense of the term. Heart-breaking and inspiring, Manchester by the Sea provides a narrative often forgotten by Hollywood films—real life. Lacking the predictable plot line or easily redeemable lessons that many of today’s films portray, this movie’s outcomes are unforeseeable: both striking and heart-wrenching. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a Boston janitor, is called back to the small New England town of Manchester for a family emergency, yet the village haunts him of his chilling past. Affleck performs the role with poise and grace, playing a character who’s suddenly revealed dark history gnaws deeply at the viewer’s emotions.

Stark contrasts are evident and used to the film’s artistic advantage. Directed by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, the film plays with cold, inanimate and distant views of New England seascapes and landscapes, and contrasts of intense shots of life, human suffering, and a town seemingly haunted with the past of the protagonist. The use of intense flashbacks are important to tie the story together, and as the viewer gains an increasingly clear view of the protagonist, it is increasingly comprehensible that he is more than a janitor, but a ghost coming to the realization of the life he left behind in Manchester.

Manchester by the Sea is piercing. It is painful,  ferocious, and it is in itself a cinematic study on the human psyche. Affleck’s character, amidst emotional turmoil, pushes those around him away—a sense of isolation furthered in the continual reminder by the filmmaker in the steep silence of the sleepy New England setting. The cold and inhuman outside setting only amplifies the humanistic and lifelike realities that are brought to the viewer’s attention: death, alcoholism, coming-of-age, memories and nostalgia. These are tied together into a poignant and sharp film that is worthy of any movie-goer’s attention. It would be no great surprise if Affleck’s character, and his ex-wife (Michelle Williams) are recognized in some manner for their outstanding cinematic achievement in this film.

Together with a chilling and often quietly mysterious plot, Lonergan has created a cinematic masterpiece: a film which celebrates life despite the gravest circumstances, and whose characters try to find meaning through living amongst the ashes of an unforgettable and difficult past.