Star Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
I figured with Oscar season and the Academy Awards now behind us, it might be time to start looking at some of the other nominees for Best Picture in 2016. It just happens that Manchester by the Sea was the next film to arrive from my Netflix queue. It was a film that once it ended left me frustrated and confounded. How did that performance gain Casey Affleck an award for Best Actor? What was the point? Why was it so long? It was only after a few days and a conversation with my collaborator, Joel, that the real beauty of the film hit me.
The film centers around the death of Lee’s (Casey Affleck) older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). During the reading of the will, it is discovered that Joe left everything to his son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), but Lee is to be his legal guardian until Patrick turns 21. It’s a decision that blindsides Lee in the midst of his grief. suddenly, Lee is expected to uproot his life in Boston to take care of his nephew in Manchester. As the film unfolds, it examines how each of the different characters deal with grief, and how Patrick and Lee work out their new relationship together.
Manchester by the Sea is first and foremost an examination of grief. As the central character, Casey Affleck’s Lee is the one we spend the most time with, and as a result we are given an inside look at his thoughts and emotions during several pivotal scenes. These emotions and thoughts are usually conveyed via flashback. The film edits these flashbacks into the scenes in such a way that it invokes the feeling of being a memory happening in real time. Lee is a very quiet character, which makes it somewhat difficult to discern what emotion he is feeling. These flashbacks cleverly provide insight into his mind and emotions throughout the film. These flashbacks don’t happen for any of the other characters, but this is not necessary. Most of Lee’s memories involve other characters, or the other characters are more extroverted, or vocal, in their performance. Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) breaks down crying, begging Lee to forgive her and talk to her. Patrick has a very visible panic attack. Lee’s memories give insight to why these characters react in the way they do. With the exception of one scene, Lee keeps his feelings bottle inside of him. Everything about Casey Affleck’s performance is an exercise in subtlety.
In terms of acting, Affleck provides a great performance, as does the rest of the cast. I don’t know if I would consider his performance to be Oscar-worthy, but it is notably better than last years Best Actor winner. The greatest part about his performance is that it looks real. Affleck’s character shows the quiet reserved side of grief, and the results of that choice. On two occasions his emotions manifest themselves. Both times with damaging consequences. Compared to Patrick or Randi or even Joe’s friend George (C.J. Wilson), Lee is emotionally distant, which comes across as uncaring, or indifferent toward the entire event. Patrick acknowledges this when he continues to tell Lee that he doesn’t care. Michelle Williams is featured in this film less than the promotional materials made it seem. During one of her few scenes, she steals the show from Casey Affleck because of how much raw emotion she puts behind her words. I believe her character is meant to provide a foil to Affleck’s emotionally distant Lee. Where Randi has managed to move forward from past traumas and expresses her emotions, Lee continues to keep himself at a distance from everything. Having only been acquainted with Lucas Hedges in two other films prior to this (Moonrise Kingdom and The Zero Theorem) where his acting was required to be less on the dramatic side, I found his performance in Manchester by the Sea to be an incredible change. He portrays Patrick exactly how he is. A high school kid. Patrick focuses his grief on continuing to live life as normal possible. It is only during a few private moments with Lee where we see his true feelings come out. Unlike Lee, Patrick isn’t afraid to feel, but he also won’t let his emotions out publicly like Randi.
Through Lee’s memories, his emotional state is revealed. We see how the city of Manchester has given him so many terrible memories. In a way, locations in this film act as physical manifestations of different character’s emotions and mental states. When Randi breaks down crying when she’s talking to Lee, they’re both in an open area. She’s being open about her feelings. Lee is emotionally distant, so he moves away from Manchester to Boston to distance himself from his traumatic past. Even Lee’s decision at the end of the film has implications for his emotional state. As a result, Manchester acts as something more than just a setting to the story. There are more establishing shots in this film than I think I’ve ever seen in my life. This is because of how important the location is to the characters and their emotional states. The film builds an emotional connection between the city and the characters and shows how that can effect every aspect of their lives.
Manchester by the Sea is a long film, and it feels long. It might be the most realistic examination of grief I’ve ever witnessed on film. There’s little to no rising action, it hardly has a climax, and while there’s no real resolution to any sort of conflict at the center of the film, you do see a change in Lee’s character, which adds a redemptive factor to the story. Manchester by the Sea is less about a man dealing with his brother’s death, and more about a man coming to terms with his past and trying to move past his traumas. I can understand why the film was nominated for so many awards. It’s beautifully shot, and the acting spews of raw emotion, however I can’t help but to feel that the film was lacking something.