manchester by the sea

There is very little in my life that has affected me so deeply as music in films. Some of my most joyful moments, and most heart-wrenching pain, has come while sitting in the dark, looking up at the screen. I cherish these moments and know that they have profoundly shaped and formed me. Four hours ago, I watched MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. The experience was both devastating and euphoric.

Kenneth Lonergan may have written and directed MANCHESTER, but Lesley Barber’s score is the film’s heart, its pulsating blood. Her opening Manchester By The Sea Chorale, a simple yet extraordinary masterpiece of voice and strings, captures everything that makes the movie what it is: the beauty, the loss, the longing for connection.

Years ago, Lonergan secured a permanent place in my heart and mind with another story of loss and grief, YOU CAN COUNT ON ME. Barber was there then as well, coaxing the audience towards recognition and acceptance with her incredibly deft hand.

Early on in Manchester, Mark Ruffalo’s character from COUNT ON ME reveals himself in Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler. Both characters are horribly stunted – crippled by loss. Both try to navigate worlds, now suddenly foreign, while full of rage and sadness, occasionally attempting to form new connections or repair those broken long ago.

Lonergan’s writing and direction are remarkable. He captures reality as only few others have. Events unfold as they do in real life. Death doesn’t cause time to skip ahead as in most films. Logistics are required. Horribly mundane decisions must be made. Even amidst great tragedy, teenagers are fucking obnoxious. Lonergan portrays people as they actually move about the world, driving from place to place, picking up and dropping off, running errands. Ultimately, a simple walk to the store dramatically alters the lives of almost every character.

A friend pointed out that Lonergan somehow both telegraphs and skillfully obscures the source of Affleck’s great heartache. We all know that it’s coming; we just don’t know exactly how or when it will strike. And when it does, with alarming realism, we are somehow complicit in the tragedy, in the guilt, because we knew it was coming all along.

And yet despite all of this pain, or perhaps because of it, there is an element of playfulness throughout Manchester. Affleck’s relationship with his nephew, his nephew’s relationship with the world, and their constant verbal sparring, is the source of great humor. These characters are so full of turbulent emotion, so fragile and prone to indiscriminate bursts of violence or laughter.

Which brings me back to the music (it always comes back to the music). Scores are far too often condescendingly-instructive, didactic forces of exposition. Audiences are rarely allowed to feel without specific direction. Barber’s scores, without question, create powerful moods. They affect and they drive. But in Manchester, the music very rarely shares the stage with the actors, especially over dialogue. Her use of Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor during perhaps the most emotionally charged scene in the movie is haunting yet respectful. Throughout the film, events are tied together by music, not overshadowed by it. With this remarkably simple yet uncommon editing choice, we are allowed to experience life as it actually happens, without unnecessary accompaniment or embellishment.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA is a stunning achievement, a beautiful, powerful and ultimately crushing experience. It is a film that I will never again see nor forget.