By Nick Milligan
The critical and financial divide between Hollywood blockbusters and small budget dramas widened further in 2016, with Manchester by the Sea (made for $8.5m) and Moonlight (only $5m) the two front runners to beat crowd-pleaser La La Land to cinema’s most coveted treasure – the Academy Award for Best Film.
Critics and industry peers have seized on both Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight, with respective directors Kenneth Lonergan and Barry Jenkins a big chance of earning an Oscar for their efforts. Both are small films, exercises in attention to detail and nuance of character. Micro over macro. Neither are plot-driven, but rather a thread of vignettes. Precise fictional moments purpose-built to be revelatory. But is each film objectively brilliant? Or does their relative depth of character and interesting camera-work simply make them stand-out from the hackneyed crowd?
This is a review of Manchester by the Sea, a gentle, moving and masculine drama about dealing with grief. At the film’s centre is Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a quiet and emotionally closed man who works in a number of apartments in Quincy, Massachusetts, as a janitor and all-round handyman. He has to negotiate a range of tenant personalities, each testing the self-control that keeps his internalised anger at bay. But this rage does occasionally boil over, especially when he drinks.
Lee is called back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, also in Massachusetts, when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, seen only in flashbacks) suffers a fatal heart attack. A lawyer then informs Lee, much to his alarm, that he is now the legal guardian of Joe’s 16-year-old son Patrick. Guardianship has fallen to Lee due to Patrick’s alcoholic mother Elise (Gretchen Mol) being estranged from her son.
The film then depicts the trials and tribulations of the ensuing week, as Lee and Patrick are thrown together under the same roof, each dealing with the pain of Joe’s loss, planning the funeral, and trying to work out the best next step for both of them. These interactions are inter-cut by flashbacks, and at the mid-point of the film we learn the traumatic reason for Lee’s depressive state. It’s very evident that being back in his hometown, where he crosses paths with old acquaintances, including his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), is a difficult environment to endure.
The praise that has been heaped upon Manchester by the Sea – and the fact that it might win the Academy Award for Best Picture and Original Screenplay – ultimately says more about the state of mainstream English-language movies in 2016/17 than it does about the movie itself.
This is a fine film. No question. The potentially dull subject matter is buoyed by some genuinely funny humour, and small insightful moments that demonstrate Lonergan’s ability to weave a complex work. His direction is sensitive, the performances have perfect pitch and his placement of the camera is always thoughtful and effective. Lonergan can frame a scene and the titular town, with its cold austerity, is an effective backdrop. Lesley Barber’s orchestral score is deliberately prominent (almost overblown), but proves an arresting dramatic device. The music is its own character. There’s strong elements here.
But Manchester by the Sea is not a masterpiece. It has been heralded as one, perhaps by major critics whose opportunities to gush have been few and far between. But, despite its searching, the film never quite reaches a pinnacle moment. A paragraph of ultimate profoundness. There’s no revelatory scene or breakthrough that quite justifies the movie’s existence. If it’s an exercise in pain and grief, an essay on life after excruciating loss, or the weight of survivor’s guilt, then Manchester by the Sea brings nothing that Don’t Look Now didn’t deliver 44 years ago. The spectre of grief has loomed in many films since, and explored far more effectively, with Monster’s Ball and 21 Grams amongst the modern stand-outs.
Here’s the rub. As a fictional construct, Manchester by the Sea is not based on a true story. Therefore, the pain heaped on Lee, its central protagonist, is a conscious decision by its author. This creative choice makes Lee a victim. The victim of a simple, yet terrible, mistake. As an exercise, then, in which Lonergan must find interest – locate the reason why we, as an audience, might want to spend 137 minutes with this character. Why do we want to hear his story? Why do we care? But, Lonergan never presents more of a reason than, “He’s a victim. Wait around and see if he deals with his shit.”
And Lee seems decidedly happy to play the victim. He’s not attempted to confront his anguish. He’s a broken man. He drinks. He’s locked away in a shitty apartment with a shitty job. He’s almost mono-syllabic. Violence bubbles beneath the surface. He’s given up on life. The opportunity to look after his nephew, to assist him across the threshold of adulthood, seems like a change for Lee to find purpose again. To recalibrate. To endure.
There’s no revelation, internally or externally. Is Lonergan telling us that there is no way to overcome such grief? That might be true. But does that assertion make an interesting movie? Why are we spending time with this victim? To feel better about ourselves? To revel in the fragility of the human spirit? Or its strength and resilience? Even jokes have a punchline – a reason to grant them our attention – but the point of Manchester by the Sea is frustratingly elusive. The screenplay feels like an interesting run-on sentence without a full-stop.
Curiously, Casey Affleck’s portrayal of Lee has been widely lauded for its power and restraint. But let’s get real. He is very good in Manchester by the Sea. No doubt. But this is not a career-defining performance. Affleck has been far better (see The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Gone Baby Gone, The Killer Inside Me). In the film’s most pivotal scene, a chance meeting in the street with Randi, his ex-wife, Affleck is feeding off the emotion in Michelle Williams’ performance. All of the actors, particularly Oscar-nominated Lucas Hedges as Patrick, bring their A-game
There’s no question that Manchester by the Sea is a strong movie and, despite its faults, is head and shoulders above the vast majority of American dramas that appeared in 2016. But will we talk about it decades from now?
3 1/2 stars.