Pain, Joy, and Sorrow
Manchester by the Sea revolves around the natural interaction between joy and sorrow of traumatic cinema. Directed and written by Kenneth Lonergan, the heart-wrenching film features Casey Affleck. He plays a raw role as a Bostonian, having to return to his hometown to suffer tragedies both old and new. At the same time, the essence of the story must be familiar. However, Lonergan’s ear for sharp yet authentic dialogue delivers several unexpected laughs. For a film about scars, indeed, there is no prototype. The film’s capacity for naturalism must bind its audience with the material. At the end of the film, the effects take time to wear off. Much like adjusting to light after darkness, the director’s enduring power suddenly wears off after his time away from the film.
In addition, Lonergan made his directorial debut in 2000 entitled You Can Count on Me. The film is a family drama and earned an Oscar nomination. In 2011, he released Margaret. While it shot for over $8 million, the film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. After backing the filmmakers, similar distribution deals over the past year, Amazon discovers a different director’s voice. Simply put, the film is a story about pain. It is the story of Lee Chandler, a janitor in Boston. He does his routine job, which is cleaning the toilet. More often than not, he also takes on extra work to keep himself busy. In the entire film, Lee appears with anti-social behavior. He gets a call, finding the hospital caring for his brother, Joe Chandler. After learning Joe had died, his family asked Lee to be the guardian of Joe’s son, Patrick, who was 16 years old.
In the first sequence, Manchester by the Sea shows its time in spring. It gives a different picture of the water. Suddenly, there is a change of seasons in times of joy and happiness. The audience sees a man shoveling ice from a trail in winter. In addition, Lonergan uses the seasons as one of the critical elements of the film. He tried to throw contrasting sentiments without any prior notice. Seasons play a role as the climacteric, describing the transition of the seasons in which painting changes in time. Such interval is a disaster, a miracle, or happiness. As the film progresses, the director presents Lee as an anti-social person.
He also gets frustrated at bars where he does not reciprocate his interest in women to the point of lashing out at people for trivial things. In essence, Lee is a very problematic person. When Lee was driving back to Manchester, he was clearly in distress after seeing his brother’s condition. However, the film always chooses to play jazz, just like in the film’s early scenes. It might illustrate that the world will always be oblivious to the plight of people or others. When Lee found out Joe had died, he was very calm. He also directly took responsibility for the funeral. On the other hand, he still holds death and a sense of responsibility. Setting up a transition between scenes in the same but separate buildings leaves the audience a bit ambiguous.
Lee and Patrick visit a lawyer to read Joe’s will at a specific moment. The letter contains Joe’s last request to Lee to become Patrick’s guardian. The audience went to the most crucial preview, which gave the audience an insight into the pain in Lee’s mind. It explains why he cannot be Patrick’s father for the first time, even though he loves him very much. Flashback narratives without signals tend to keep the audience on their toes. As a result, the audience is constantly trying to decipher where the scenes in the film are. For example, Lonergan likes to zoom in on character expressions, use slow motion, or blur the frame. Real-time or smooth time is the answer.
By turning the clock backward and forwards simultaneously, the audience finds out how time is arbitrary and tortures Lee in the current setting. In addition, Lonergan also likes to cut unnecessary expositions and always focuses on one or only one thing, namely grief. When a member of Patrick’s ice hockey team whispers, the audience tends to think Lee is a rich man. Tragically, he is just a janitor. After the fire incident, the audience also knew what caused it. There were many rumors and drama between Lee and his ex-wife, Randi. However, because it was too obvious, Lonergan cut off the exposition. In such a form and irony, the most real life is a series of unstoppable pain.
The Memory of the Past
The traumatic cinema of Manchester by the Sea lives on in the memory of the past. Of course, it is a film about moving on. The background music can also make the audience feel warm. However, the real-life that Lee lived was a poor and simple life. The cold but glassy image show flips the narrative. It constantly makes the comparison between current and past settings clearer. As a result, it touches the hearts of the audience. Trauma received the best interpretation, including the scene that became an emotional expression of Lee’s heart. In such aspects, the flow of consciousness technique in the film is no longer in doubt.
Apart from being outside the traditional narrative, it does not follow the rules of cause and effect and follows conscience. There is no timeline because people can no longer pinpoint the past. By telling the audience that Lee never lived in the current time, his spirit and body remain frozen in space and time in the past. He was like a drowning person and could not escape. The wound that the fire inflicted on Lee was enormous, and he could not heal it. The wound took root in his heart and tormented him all the time. When the warmth in the outside world could not reach his heart, he really could not melt his mental pain. However, there are many beautiful things in flashback images. Lee and his nephew were playing closely on the ship. Lee and his wife also, quite frankly, love each other. The subtle but unforgettable memories hold Lee tight. He will constantly swirl in a whirlpool of heartache and warmth at the same time.
The focus of Manchester by the Sea is not just the season and traumatic narrative cinema. Instead, the film focuses a lot on nature. For example, there are seagulls, ocean waves, rain, and blizzards. The film depicts a solitary journey about the impermanence of fate and its coldness. In the first sequence, Lee laughs and jokes with his nephew on a water and blue skies boat. Quickly, the film changed the atmosphere to heavy snow. The phone rings to inform the sudden death of his brother. Doctors tell families and patients that it will happen on an irregular basis. In addition, doctors were also unable to treat Joe effectively.
The audience shows a deep sense of sadness and helplessness on the verge of death. As part of destiny, death always appears in the appearance of being intolerable, unacceptable, and will always be avoided. The blizzard always appears many times in the film, implying the cruelty and coldness of nature. If only snow were nature’s will, Lee would always use his strength to fight his fate. The boat is also included in the natural symbolism of the film. It symbolizes solace in times of sorrow. Each character also finds the experience differently. The boat is an eyewitness to a whole transformation of self, fun time with family, and escape from leisure.
Lee Chandler is an individual who is not good at expressing his feelings as a man. He was not good at communicating because he did not want others to sympathize with him. Like people in the real world, like it or not, everyone has to admit that life and death are not the kinds of pain people can forget. It will always go on with time and appear in every moment in life. Manchester by the Sea is a real traumatic cinema, sadly without apparent conflict, but paying more attention to every detail. The film interprets the realities of life and does not have a clear definition of right or wrong.
Everyone wants to put sadness in life, forget it, and put the past. Everyone also chose to fight head-on, fought hard, and chose to accept it silently. The film chooses the last option, more similar but closer to real-life, in seeking the truth in life. Lonergan describes the story according to the authentic way of life. To live is to face the inevitable pain of death. However, life is also always complete. The film allows the audience to face life with a peaceful mind, feel the sadness, and think about life. In most tragic movies, there will be happy moments. However, Lonergan sadly chooses the film but presents new ideas for narrative style in traumatic cinema.
Throughout the film, Lonergan likes to balance irreversible sadness with gentle warmth. Manchester by the Sea is a traumatic cinema that thinks its characters cannot forgive themselves for each character. It also hesitates to get involved with anyone again. Regardless of the quality of life, character breathing and searing pain always find a way to produce laughter. Apart from having fun in awkward and straightforward moments, he does not play the usual drama. In essence, he prefers to play the authenticity of everyday life.
While it is not a film about a happy ending, it is about how memories rule and define one. He also brings a realistic experience through unique images in telling a tragic story. It makes the atmosphere of sadness linger. While it was not crucial for Lee to return to Manchester, his struggles proved his love of life. Manchester is not just a snowy city filled with blue seas. However, it becomes a warmth every change of season.
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- May, T. (2020). Kenneth Lonergan: Filmmaker and Philosopher. Bloomsbury Publishing.
- Zhang, S. (2020, December). Analysis of Traumatic Narrative Style in Movies—Take Manchester By the Sea as an Example. In 2nd International Conference on Literature, Art and Human Development (ICLAHD 2020) (pp. 171-174). Atlantis Press.