Manchester by the Sea is a powerful, patient exploration of traumatic personal loss. Its 2.17 runtime focuses mostly on the after-effects of loss on its protagonist, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck).
Lee is an unhappy man, whose life seems oppressed by some deep anguish, the origins of which are revealed in a slow burn, piece-by-piece, throughout the film. Affleck captures Lee’s complex emotional state with effective use of subtle expressions of turmoil, occasionally interrupted by explosions of violence. With a simple-yet-effective structure, the film dances between present day and flashbacks. This creates a slow burn, and a gradual understanding of the origins of Lee’s present-day woes.
This film has the courage to depict the influence of trauma as it probably often is – relentless. This is not a happy film. It deals with grief head on. It’s not a depressing film either though. It is artful, and it feels real. It’s narrative reveal is extreme, but it never feels cheap or melodramatic. Its style is not of a film trying to jerk tears, or to produce sentimentality. It is of a film seriously concerned, and trying to examine closely a topic that just happens to be very heavy.
It is one of my favourite films of the last few years. Despite that, I don’t feel compelled to rewatch it anytime soon. Its power is in the gradual reveal, and the audience’s gradual understanding of Lee’s condition. The flashback structure, so simple, is so effective. We get to know this protagonist by his actions and his demeanor in the present day. Then we come to understand why he is this way, how he was warped into this figure, as we see his history through seamless transitions to flashback. I say seamless because they don’t feel forced or expository. They feel like natural evocations of a character who is bumping up against his past every day.