A curious contender as the Golden Globes air tomorrow and with the Academy Awards just around the corner, Manchester by the Sea is a film with serious potential to bring home some trophies. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan and starring Casey Affleck, the film tells the story of a lonely handyman (Affleck) who must restructure his entire life when he is suddenly charged as the guardian of his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges). Critics have been raving over the film's strong performances, atmospheric visuals, and engaging narrative.
However, what stuck out to me when watching Manchester by the Sea was the film's distinct mood. There seems to be something intentionally offbeat about the film, a frustrating dynamic in which none of its pieces seem to fit. While most films have a smooth story that coasts its way through highs and lows, this is a far more jumbled film which leaves its audience alarmed and uncomfortable for its entire run. It does so with constant distractions, visual and auditory roadblocks that keep the viewer confused and disoriented. I found it to be a brilliant strategy for telling this kind of story, so I thought I'd share my thoughts. Here are some ways that Manchester by the Sea builds its mood.
Embracing the Awkward
Most screenwriters will relish in dialogue, an exciting back-and-forth between characters which can produce some of the most engaging moments of a film's conflict. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin famously said that characters and people are completely different; they just look alike. However, Lonergan (who also wrote the film) takes a completely different approach. The characters in Manchester feel like real people. The difference between this film and many others is that its characters have a hard time communicating. They're painfully awkward.
This is particularly embodied in Casey Affleck's character, Lee Chandler. Because he has faced hardships in his life that have diminished his confidence, Lee is an introvert forced with leading a narrative that he really has no interest in leading. Lonergan builds a fascinating dynamic where his protagonist struggles to make connections with others and would rather be left alone. This leads to some of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film, such as the above image where Affleck and Michelle Williams portray ex-lovers with a long history and strong feelings about the past, but they are unable to articulate those feelings in an appropriate way, making for an uncomfortable but powerful moment.
This awkward mood is also important for the film's comedy, which many audiences have had trouble identifying. A motif throughout the film is Lee's nephew, Patrick, trying to have sex with various women at his high school. Lee doesn't understand Patrick's views on relationships, and their conversations on the subject lead for some of the film's most humorous moments where you find yourself cringing your way into laughter.
Another important aspect of Manchester's uncomfortable mood is its noises. Often, the film's music will drop out in favor of a more realistic, quiet scene where only diegetic sound effects can be heard. Affleck's character is often left alone to contemplate, but the film makes these moments uncomfortable by breaking his concentration. Just as the audience roots for Affleck in finding solutions to his problems and bettering his life, we also hold out for moments when he can finally have some peace and quiet.
In one significant scene, Affleck is planning the funeral arrangements for his brother. However, his nephew comes down the stairs with one of his multiple girlfriends. They start making breakfast, and the film enhances the volume of these sounds to give us a sense of how they break Affleck's focus. The film is full of these moments: We're given just a glimpse of peace and quiet in which progress can be made, but these moments are taken away from us, leaving us in frustration.
It may seem at first glance that Manchester doesn't have the most exciting of plots, but Lonergan wisely raises the stakes of the conflict through agitation. This is simply a film about Affleck's character making a series of tough decisions, but he lives in such a distracting, frustrating environment that there's really no room to think. The film is ripe with unpleasant, alarming noises that break the smoothness of the narrative and frustrate both the characters and the audience's expectations.
Pieces that Don't Fit
The central conflict of Manchester comes in the form of pieces which just don't fit. The premise itself is uncomfortable: Affleck's character doesn't want to take care of his nephew but essentially has no other option. However, this conflict is enhanced by the fact that Affleck really can't catch a break. Whenever his character is planning or compromising options for the future, something seems to go wrong. Dates and times never seem to work out, and the puzzle pieces only grow clunkier as Affleck's stay in Manchester only grows more tiresome.
The film also features scenes in which one object literally doesn't fit into another object. For example, we get a sequence in which Patrick attempts to stuff meat into a freezer, but he can't seem to close the door with everything tucked away inside. The scene builds in frustration until an emotional explosion in one of the film's strongest scenes. This motif also occurs in darker scenarios, including one scene where paramedics struggle to fit a character properly into the back of an ambulance.
This repetition in the film, characters attempting to fit together pieces that aren't meant to coincide, reflects one the film's most important themes. Life has forced these characters together, most notably Affleck and Hedges, and it just doesn't seem meant to be. There's a growing frustration that only compounds from scene to scene, and you just wish that the characters could stop and catch their breath. It's a subtle but innovative approach to storytelling which makes Manchester one of the most engaging films of the year.
With clear visionary talent and a clever screenplay, Kenneth Lonergan has created a film that immerses its audience in a growing sense of discomfort. While it may bother some viewers, I found it to be an ingenious method of investing the audience in the story. You could go watch a fairy tale fantasy such as La La Land where every scene plays out like a work of art, or you could watch something closer to reality, and this movie gives you that option. On a moment to moment basis, Manchester by the Sea is one of the most realistic films of the year. It may have some strong competitors in its upcoming awards season, but I think we'll certainly see some love thrown its way for its powerful performances and offbeat, robust narrative which sticks with you long after viewing.