Manchester by the Sea
Starring Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol
Some films have the disadvantage of being hailed an awards contender as early as January when they debut at The Sundance Film Festival. Meaning, they must carry that stigma, which turns into hype, raising expectations to an unattainable level. Manchester By the Sea is the third film from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me), and Casey Affleck had remained the top pick in the best actor race until Denzel Washington’s Fences arrived. This honest look at grief is a stressful endurance test. At first I thought it might flirt with the cinematic revelations of In the Bedroom (2001), but tragedy and the New England vibe is the only commonality. Affleck’s performance is the guts of the picture, easily his strongest and most refined work to date, but the over-hyped the one-scene wonder of Williams (she actually has three scenes) is also underwhelming.
After years of dealing with his own unbearable tragic circumstance, Lee Chandler (Affleck) gets a call that his older brother Joe (Chandler) has passed away. On the 90- minute drive from Boston, where he works as a minimum wage janitor, to Manchester, Lee flashbacks to happier times. Uncle Lee has always been there for Patrick (Hedges), now 16, the two have little in common other than blood. Neither Lee or Patrick show much outwardly emotion when they get the impending news. Immediately the arrangements fall to Lee who is introverted, emotionally unstable and at a complete loss how to care for or what to do about custody for his nephew. Joe’s wishes are in a directive, left in the will, but Lee refuses the responsibility he knows is the right thing to do.
Affleck has the unique ability to create and embody these awkward characters that tap into very loud inward expressions.
In The Descendants, when George Clooney’s character was forced to deal with his wife’s coma and their children, he described himself as “the backup parent”. When Lee hears the his brother wishes, he replies the same, “I’m just the backup.” Manchester by the Sea doesn’t have the dark comedy, or the rousing performance that layered Hawaiian drama concocted. Instead the screenplay raises many questions in flashback that are slowly, and often painfully, answered. Lonergan never goes for emotional outburst, few characters are even shown crying, maybe it’s just me, but I like my tragedy with a side of full blown emotion. Both Lee and nephew, supporting actor contender Hedges, suffocate their emotions until you think either could explode any moment.
Affleck has the unique ability to create and embody these awkward characters that tap into very loud inward expressions. He did something similar on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, earning his first Oscar nomination. Here he is the most pitiful soul you will see on film this year, he suffers tremendous emotional strain that’s conveyed with a brilliant silence. One of the film’s most troublesome elements is the music and even at times the score. It never feels right, classical orchestra pieces with an upbeat tone during moments of tragedy and grief, original score at inopportune moments. I found it distracting and uncoordinated. All year I have heard critics and awards pundits pontificate about Williams scene stealing performance that has, in my opinion, no business in the supporting actress race.
Affleck is the most vital reason to see this film that feels off in tone and relentless in its attempt to smother the films emotional moments.