If you know me, you know I can’t shy away from a movie that takes place in Massachusetts. When I first heard the title, Manchester By The Sea (2016), I knew I’d find myself in a theater critiquing the establishing shots of Boston or the Greater Massachusetts Area, and thinking to myself, “That Boston accent is wicked pissah,” which can honestly be taken as a positive just as much as a negative. Like any MA-based movie, I got what I wanted; but instead of a crime movie about Boston’s Irish mob, or some comeback story about an inner-city genius/janitor/fighter/cop/rat/, I was “treated” to a quiet and provocatively human experience. I put treated in quotations because while this movie took me by surprise in the best way possible, it was also the single saddest movie I’ve seen in the past couple of years.
Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler – the typical Boston worker who looks down everywhere he goes and treats everyone with the same curt, and sometimes offensive, attitude. It’s difficult to like someone after watching them treat everyone around them like dirt for the first half hour of the movie. But after Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies and Lee is given custody of Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), the movie starts to bloom into an emotional rollercoaster that still manages to steer clear of Oscar baited on-screen flip outs or inspirational monologues.
Hands down, without question, this is the best performance of his career. I haven’t thought of Casey Affleck as a standout actor, so I was certainly surprised. As I said above, the movie is astonishingly human and quiet in a manner similar to another movie that came out this year, Loving (2016). Affleck’s character, Lee, is a tragic one. It’s easy to hate a guy like Lee Chandler when he tells you to f*ck off while he’s cleaning your toilet. But as the film progresses, the cross editing between past and present helps us learn more about why Lee is the way he is and it makes you think twice about hating him for the first thirty minutes of the movie. Cross narratives aren’t anything new in dramas, and it is often a great way to have two characters “look back on what was compared to what is.” In Manchester, we’re dropped into and out of flashbacks so seamlessly, that sometimes we don’t realize we’re in a flashback until we’re two or three minutes into the scene. Director Kenneth Lonergan trusts his audience to figure out that a flashback has ensued, and doesn’t require some wishy-washy wipe or fade into the past. It helps create a lot of payoff for the audience as we ask questions about Affleck’s Lee and his past, only to find out in a few scenes time – only to then have more questions to be answered.
While Affleck is certainly the lead, Lonergan gets noteworthy performances out of Chandler, Hedges, and Michelle Williams as well. I was expecting Williams to be in the movie far more than she was, but she is without a doubt part of two of the most crucial scenes in the entire film. Not only that, but she also knocks both of those scenes out of the park. She and Affleck deliver almost mirroring performances that show the ugliness behind grief and loss in the most effective ways possible. While I certainly see an Oscar nomination down the road for Casey Affleck, I’m not entirely sure about Williams due to the size of her role. While Kyle Chandler and Lucas Hedges are on top of their game, I’m not 100% positive on seeing Oscar nominations in their futures due to the competitiveness of the acting race this year.
Manchester is certainly a character-driven movie that takes you on an emotional trip, as enlightening as Her (2013) and as heartbreaking as Requiem For A Dream (2000). For a movie that takes place in my home state, the fact that this movie took place in Massachusetts did not cross my mind once – despite the accents and highlights of the Bruins and Celtics. Manchester should come with a complimentary box of tissues, but there’s no denying that Kenneth Lonergan gives a lesson on the profoundness of humans dealing with loss, delivered in-part by subdued acting that can come off as haunting. I’d recommend doing the opposite of what I did and taking your mother to see this first and THEN taking her to see La La Land (2016) to cheer her up vs. seeing La La Land first and then having all hope torn from you with Manchester… Taking her to see Fences (2016) this morning didn’t help our sadness that much either.