Thoughts On: Manchester By The Sea - Dramatic Purpose


Manchester By The Sea - Dramatic Purpose

Thoughts On: Manchester By The Sea

A reclused handyman's brother dies, leaving him to be the carer of his 16-year-old nephew.

I don't know if I'm growing more cynical and cold recently, but, like Moonlight, Manchester By The Sea was just an all right film to me. There was no great, profound revelation captured by this film, no deep dramatic truth, no flawing emotional power, just a few good characters, a bunch of great acting, good direction, cinematography and... yeah. An ok film. Well made, well acted, but in the end, Manchester By The Sea was pretty flat. I am happy to accept that many won't feel this way, but, there are two main elements of this film that made this so for me. Firstly, the nephew. I know he's supposed to be a dick, and how he is played and written certainly does well to project this, but, I found him insufferable nonetheless - which really cheapened the narrative arc. He does change, ever so slightly, by the end, but, his character arc and how it worked its way into the narrative was just far too contrived for me. It was a bad attempt at projecting a torn, yet bottle-up, teen in my view. On a brighter note, I really like the last shot, however.


This is because the final scene truly established this film as one about a rather (to appeal to stereotype) masculine inner conflict. And under this thematic guise, Manchester By The Sea is pretty well written. When we then see Lee and his nephew walk away together, playing with the ball, there is a great sense of controlled catharsis. Before discussing this further though, we have to talk about the film's dramatic core - the fire that killed Lee's children. This is the second element of this film that let it fall flat. I saw, from the very beginning, that this was supposed to be a tear-jerker with great acting that's running after awards. The subdued tone of the film made me think that it had something of depth to say/show though. This gave me hope for an original or nuanced tragedy. Kids dying in a fire is just... yeah, whatever. (Maybe I am growing far too cold and cynical). The reason why this was just... eh... for me was that kids dying is such an easy slot-in for dramas. I think there was a level of power with the theme of responsibility injected into this, but, it didn't contribute much to the over arching narrative. To clarify, we'll use two examples of films with great drama. The first is The Hunt and the second is the recent Arrival - I will be using spoilers to discuss both of them.


Starting with Arrival, the crux of this film, like Manchester By The Sea, is essentially the fact that Louise Banks' child will die. She gets this premonition from the aliens that land, but decides to have a kid nonetheless; to take life as it comes and enjoy the best it has to offer in spite of all of its bittersweetness. This elevates the cliched dramatic device of a child dying as it's intertwined into the film's message. Arrival is all about communication and societal relationships in face of fear and dread. With Louise pursuing family despite impending tragedy, the film makes a succinct commentary on an emotional growth of acceptance that society would greatly benefit from. There is no strength like this in Manchester By The Sea. The death of Lee's kids is just a way to kick-start a character arc of redemption - something explored in a plethora of films. A few examples where we see better character arcs of redemption are certainly Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, Capra's It's A Wonderful Life, Aronofsky's The Wrestler and Besson's Leon: The Professional.

In comparing Manchester By The Sea to a film like The Hunt, we have a juxtaposition between a film with astounding dramatic power and one that, for me, doesn't. The crux of The Hunt's emotional impact lies in its final image. This is a film about a man wrongly accused of sexually assaulting a child in the nursery he works in. The town take this allegation (made by the girl herself) as truth and turns on Lucas (her teacher; the protagonist). This isn't done just for entertainment's value; for the film to be a tear-jerker or slightly frustrating road towards catharsis. The reason for the drama in The Hunt is all to make a commentary on trust, family, community and self-sovereignty. The final image of The Hunt ensures that this resonates. After the town learn the truth that Lucas never touched the child and that she lied out of shame, anger and embarrassment, they forgive Lucas and allow him back into their community. Things then seem to be fine - a happy ending. However, during a hunting trip on his son's birthday, Lucas is shot at (not hit) by an unknown figure. This demonstrates that there is still a stain that marks both Lucas and the town - a distrust that will never wear away. This punches you in the gut like De Sica's Bicycle Thieves or Loach's Cathy Come Home and shows you what great drama can do. As said, we don't see this in Manchester By The Sea. The most powerful scene is the penultimate one in which Lee meets his deceased children's mother, Randi. However, I didn't expect that this would be the peak of the film's dramatic crescendo. A strong scene, but definitely not a show stopper. This really took me out of the movie as I began asking myself with disappointment, "was that it?". Moreover, the final image also has very little power, it just says that Lee and Patrick will continue to develop their relationship and maybe get to a place like that shown in the early scenes with them on the boat.

What both Arrival and The Hunt demonstrate about Manchester By The Sea is the purposelessness--to be nicer, the lack of impact and emotionally resonant commentary, of its drama. So, despite this being an incredibly well made film, Manchester By The Sea didn't personally resonate with me and fell rather flat for justifiable reasons I hope don't just leave me seeming cold and cynical. So, when we come back to the final shot of the film, Lee and Patrick playing with the ball, I was left without much thought nor emotional movement. As mentioned, I liked it for the fact that it sealed this film as a subdued drama about men who refuse to outwardly emote. But, beyond saying this, Manchester By The Sea came off as just things happening without much of a point.


The take away from this film is then a lesson in building drama with purpose. Manchester By The Sea was far too subdued and uneventful, in my view, to make a succinct commentary or emotional point. This doesn't just leave the film as one that fails to appeal to the slightly pretentious cinephile that looks for theme, commentary, message, such and so on. The reason why having a clear point to your drama is often imperative is that a point or commentary can be an emotionally resonant and so supply the tears you may be jerking for (that sounds nasty, sorry) in a concrete, succinct and self-justifying manner. Ultimately, with purpose, drama becomes undeniably powerful in my opinion.

But, that's just my thoughts. Do you think I'm missing something? Is there commentary and a more profound point to be found in Manchester By The Sea?

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