Is a flashback, like a voice-over narration, a powerful device too often over-used and under-thought? We’ve recently seen the technique put to highly memorable effect in the science fiction film Arrival. In that film, director Denis Villeneuve played with what a flashback (or ‘switchback’ as they were once known) might mean in a universe where time is a palindrome: the same forwards and backwards.
And again we see terrific use of flashbacks in writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s exquisitely told drama Manchester by the Sea. The filmmaker provides several notable examples, each fitted into the narrative in an unprepossessing way designed to make one lost in the flow of things – the viewer is moved as much emotionally as they are to any point on a timeline.
In one, the film’s bummed-out protagonist, Boston janitor Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is listening to the executor of the will of his deceased brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). The executor explains it was Joe’s hope that in the event of his death (which was not entirely unexpected – he had a congenital heart disease) Lee would move back to Manchester, the seaside town he previously called home, and adopt Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
Casey Affleck’s career-best, Oscar-nominated performance is both heart-wrenchingly raw and masterfully controlled.
At this point we still don’t know why Lee is such a misery guts. Or why he exhibits extremely masochistic behaviour, visiting bars and picking fights with men – with the expectation he will get beaten and thus feel something. Then we find out. The executor says “no-one has gone through what you have” (or something very
close to that) and Lonergan unfurls a few coils in time to show us what happened.
It would constitute a spoiler to divulge any more about it, suffice to say: yeah, fair enough, that’d make anyone want to skip town. It is a masterfully written and directed moment. If you call it subtle you must also call it shattering, and vice versa.
Lee is a stoic, cut-to-the-chase kind of guy, the eternal man of few words. The aforementioned flashback is not about recalling events of the past but a representation of something he is incapable of putting into words; it works in lieu of dialogue. Lonergan (a playwright) is acutely aware that emotions are tied to places, and places are tied to stories.
This is why, when Lee attends a hospital and is told the bad news about his brother, the location remains the same while the hands on the clock change. In one timeline Joe is alive (receiving a diagnosis) and in the other he is dead. It is also the film begins with a happy memory – Joe, Lee and Patrick on Joe’s fishing boat
– but the camera keeps its distance, defining this key time as much by aesthetic (the similar shades of blue shared by water and sky; the smallness of humans) as the contents of what was said.
Manchester by the Sea is a perfect drama.
Manchester by the Sea is one of two American masterpieces currently playing in Australian cinemas, arriving just a couple of weeks after Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. Both films are vital reflections on masculinity, use water as a central motif, have reserved, eminently huggable protagonists and are about characters who have a very strong relationship with the past.
And the acting, man, the acting. The performances are magnificent in Moonlight, though its triptych format means no single cast member can really steal the show (but Naomie Harris, playing the protagonist’s mother, comes close).
That is not the case in Manchester by the Sea. Casey Affleck’s career-best, Oscar-nominated performance (he’s the hands-down favourite) is both heart-wrenchingly raw and masterfully controlled. Every face muscle, every blood vessel falls into line. Surely we all see somebody we know in Lee; someone who always makes us work harder in conversation.
In real-life we wouldn’t know what monsters haunted Lee; he couldn’t explain them if he tried. Perhaps the greatest gift of cinema is perspective. I suppose the same can be said of other mediums, but the visual and voyeuristic nature of film gives it great verisimilitude.
Brilliant directors such as Lonergan (who has made two previous films: Margaret and You Can Count on Me) understand that scene-by-scene realism is one thing, emotional truth quite another. In that sense Manchester by the Sea is a perfect drama. You get lost in the naturalness of it, and lost in the meaning.