Three of the best American dramas I’ve seen this year – Arrival, directed by Denis Villenueve; Manchester by the Sea, directed by Kenneth Lonergan; and Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins – have been great viewing in part because they’ve stayed with me long after I’ve left the theater. All three films are, in their own ways, quite beautiful, and have already garnered awards attention that I’m sure will not end anytime soon. But I think the main reason they’ve stuck with me is that they’re all anchored by exquisitely restrained performances, calibrated to a degree that’s both clearly natural and extremely technical.
In Arrival, although the film has a discernible plot, it’s arguably built at its most important moments around the personal experience of Amy Adams’ linguist character, laboring under great pressure and skepticism on tasks of critical importance. Adams’ face registers awe, worry, and irritation with the slightest changes in expression. We can tell that she’s nearly – but never actually – overwhelmed by the things she sees, and her analytical determination draws the film into a climax of ethereal mystery, not action.
Manchester By The Sea revolves around Casey Affleck, bearing unimaginable trauma and struggling to keep it together even as he drifts in a cloud of total despair. Aside from a couple of notable exceptions, Affleck is like a simmering pot of repressed grief, expending great physical effort to speak and barely able to process what’s going on around him. Everything about Affleck’s bearing and speech reflects some need to escape, transcend, or redeem, with slight moments of such playing outsize roles in the film’s atmosphere. Similarly, Moonlight’s main character, Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes at three periods of his life), is almost defined by repression. Important moments revolve around not revealing emotion or selfhood, the gravity of such choices clear at all times.
All three are stories in which what doesn’t happen is often as important as what does. The gaps between characters create lingering tension, surprise, and even humor. It’s easy to see performances like these as collaborations between story, actor, and director. In this sense, they’re highly technical achievements: multiple artists working to manipulate the tools of the actor’s face, telling stories that are subtle and riveting, and also, because of what the camera reveals, uniquely cinematic.
Perhaps because of their technical precision, the non-exaggeration in these films projects the fantasy of realism. Characters hew close to how (one imagines) most people would probably handle a situation. They (that is, we) usually respond to circumstances not in the most extreme, confident, or self-actualizing way, but in ways diluted by social pressure, fear, and other factors. Taking place in the closed world of a film, an unexaggerated performance reads as an idealization, something like our “better selves.” The catharsis of the story then lands closer to home, and the film imparts its moral and cultural lessons in a subtler way – one that feels earned, personal, and richer as a result.
I wonder if it’s more accurate to say that in continuing to think about all three films, I find myself continuing to parse the lessons they impart, the complex things coded in their characters’ faces. Desiring to avoid dramatic action. Not wanting to blow up the world or transform one’s life, but observing, considering, calculating. Attempting at all odds to heal, and struggling to continue believing in the possibility of healing. The highly engineered realism in these three films allows us to search these characters for clues, while they navigate lives that feel like they exist in our own uncertain world. (TB)
Image courtesy of Paramount