“I said a lot of terrible things to you. My heart was broken, and I know yours is broken, too.”
At some point in our lives we will all have had that phone call. The phone call that one of the most beloved people in our lives has died. More often than not the movies get that phone call wrong. Their phone calls almost always happen at night. The person answers the phone groggily but is then instantly awoken by the news; or, they receive the phone call mid-way through doing something and instantly fall to their knees crying ‘No!!!’. They cry feel shattering devastation instantly. They move into action and know instantly what they are going to do next.
For most of us, it’s not really like that. Real grief, for one thing, is slower. It doesn’t instantly kick in that the person you have loved has died. You feel it in your gut first – a vague comprehension that something is very wrong – then there’s numbness as your brain tries to process the information as quickly as it possibly can. The crying may not kick in for a good while as the shock takes over. Later on you’ll probably realise that you have a gap in your memory covering a period of time after the phone call as you’d mentally stepped away from the present as you were distracted by the past.
‘Manchester By The Sea‘ shows that kind of grief. Grief that is raw – but numbing as opposed to melodramatic. When Lee Chandler (Affleck) gets the call that his brother Joe (Chandler) has died his suffering remains relatively silent. Real life rarely offers time to wallow and Lee doesn’t either – he gets moving and drives back home to look after his nephew Patrick (Hedges) then has to get on with things. His trauma may not be as vocal as cinema might present but as a result it ends up being a brutal and honest showcase of a universal experience. In fact, the level of empty vulnerability that Affleck utilizes lends the film to also be that of a meditation of grief.
The focus is on the aftermath – both short and more long term. Lee moves back to his old home town and has to deal with the memories he locked away & left behind. He has to unexpectedly look after an almost 17-year-old boy, negotiating all the obstacles that come with the rollercoaster of adolescence. Lonergan places emphasis on the more inconsequential moments of real life grief. The typical beats of a similarly focused movie aren’t here; they play to a different tune. The visiting the hospital, the funeral and wake do not have the extended running time you may expect. Instead the focus is on the struggle to exist – let alone live – after you’ve experienced loss. Courtesy to the skill level of cast and crew we don’t just observe his grief – thanks to Affleck’s Golden Globe winning skill – we experience it. We feel it ourselves and it becomes a shared experience.
So much of the press of this film has focused on how sad it is – unsurprising really considering the subject matter – yet the element that places it above & beyond most movies doesn’t really get a mention. It’s got a real comedic edge. As human beings we often rely on humour to survive the most harrowing of moments, gallows humour if you will. There’s a lot of this in the film, in a way that is naturalistic as opposed to shoehorned. Having a film that was fixated on sadness would be dissatisfying and unrealistic. The family’s anguish at the loss of the beloved Joe – a popular man who contrasts greatly with his self isolating brother – is heightened by its often tragicomedic tone.
An incredible representation of grief which doesn’t scream but instead showcases a sstillness which is far louder & more potent.
Dir: Kenneth Lonergan
Year: 2017 Run time:137 minutes
Starring: Casey Affleck, Kyle Chandler, C.J. Wilson, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges.