Manchester By The Sea (2016) – Asymmetrical Character Coverage Reflects Different Emotional States

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016)

Directed Kenneth Lonergan (Margaret; You Can Count On Me). Starring Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler.

I wanted to point out one element at play visually in the “Could we ever get lunch?” scene that so many people love.

Watch the scene here.

The scene begins with Lee (Casey Affleck) running into his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), Randi’s baby with her new partner, and Randi’s friend. Lee is about to leave when Randi says she’d like to speak with him for a moment. Randi’s friend gives them space, and then they are left alone (albeit with the baby, which is heartbreaking for spoiler-filled reasons). Let’s take a look at all of the shots, in order, that are used leading up to Lee and Randi being left alone:

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This series of shots is striking to me. What do we notice? There’s no reverse over-the-shoulder (OTS) shot of Lee. Lee is always framed distant from Randi, either in single shots or in removed, distant three-shots. Randi is always framed either with her friend or in an OTS with Lee in the foreground. In the wide three-shots, Randi’s friend stands near her, leaving Lee in a more empty space of the frame.

The below OTS shot of Randi, in many films, would be intercut with the corresponding reverse shot of Lee from Randi’s shoulder.

Screen Shot 2017-05-29 at 11.03.47 AM.png

But Lonergan chooses to cut from this Randi OTS only to wider shots or to single shots of Lee. He withholds this reverse shot of Lee. Framing Randi in OTS shots early on signifies that she is eager to talk to Lee and has a lot on her mind. Her objective is to draw Lee into a conversation. Lee, on the other hand, wishes to keep this conversation at bay, because he cannot handle the emotional wear of a conversation like this. He feels cornered, and he lives in isolation due to the trauma he’s been through. The desire to chat is one-sided. And thus the shot coverage of the two characters is asymmetrical.

I don’t consider this just a theoretical exercise in film analysis… when I was watching the scene, before I completely understood the idea at play, I was hit emotionally by the arrival, finally, of this shot – it comes only after Randi’s friend has left and after Lee has been denied the opportunity to escape.

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This is the first time we’ve seen this OTS shot of Lee. No escape now, Lee.

Props to Kenny Lonergan for serving the story and escaping conventional coverage. Thank you for an authentic emotional journey.

 

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