Sad movies abound in, in the words of Thomas Flight, "funerals in the rain...wakes with poignant moments between characters, the dramatic death bed scene." This essay argues that much of the strength of Manchester by the Sea—one of the most grief-stricken films in recent memory—is a result of director Kenneth Lonergan's subversion of these traditions. Here's how the film handles grief, and some techniques that might help you depict the rawest of human emotions without striking a false note. [Note: spoilers ahead.]
Lonergan practices the art of defamiliarization; in film, audiences are used to big emotional moments being signposted, with "dramatic music cues," but in real life, "grief doesn't end when the camera cuts away," and the "huge events in our lives that are supposed to be emotional and foundational can pass by in a blur, shrouded in dullness." Hence the film, more often that not, focuses on "mistakes, annoyances and funny moments [that] are a part of real life."
Many of the most emotionally fraught moments are played in wide-shot, slow-motion, or out-of-earshot, so that they are defamiliarized to the audience, much in the same way that grief can feel like an alien sensation. And from a filmmaking perspective, "when the movie doesn't focus on the grief and the big moments, it feels less like a movie and more like reality....when grief does hit, it hits when we least expect it." So much of success in filmmaking lies in establishing a successful tone, a mood to maintain and modulate, alternately keeping the audience at arm's length and then letting the drama or tension break through in moments of quiet, unexpected emotion—all the more affecting for being unexpected.
In this story of male grieving, set in a culture where men don't express their emotions with ease, if at all, Lonergan uses the tone of the film to be a sort of objective correlative for the emotional content onscreen. His strategy of subversion works so that when things explode onscreen, they go quiet inside, just the like the grief-numbed heads of the characters do. Even this climactic sequence, which would conventionally play as one of the most dramatic and over-the-top, has a quiet, meditative quality that is elegiac and contemplative.
And that's what good films do. They find the ineffable, strange moments between people, those silences that resist definition, and somehow capture them, like fireflies in a jar. Manchester by the Sea is a masterful depiction of grief on film, and that's because it chooses its moments quietly. As a filmmaker, Lonergan does what all filmmakers would be wise to do: observe life, and all of its rich strangeness, and then work from that, rather than relying on the world that movies has created. Especially in films that aspire to emotional truth, the movies are there to depict life, and not the other way around.