At the Golden Globe Awards earlier this month, Jimmy Fallon described Manchester by the Sea as “the only thing from 2016 that was more depressing than 2016.”
Certainly, the fact it’s centered around no fewer than four deaths makes its position as one of the frontrunners for the Best Picture Oscar in a year so packed with notable deaths rather fitting.
With an unflinching stare of despair and pain, Manchester by the Sea is a gruelling movie. It’s also a great one.
Casey Affleck plays Lee, a solitary janitor in Quincy, MA who is sleepwalking through his drunkenness. When he receives word that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) is in the hospital, he races back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea, only to find his brother has passed away.
In town for the week to settle his brother’s affairs, Lee discovers that Joe named him the legal guardian of Lee’s nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). For the teenaged Patrick, leaving Manchester-by-the-Sea isn’t an option. For the traumatized Lee, staying in Manchester-by-the-Sea is even less of one.
Manchester by the Sea is one of those movies that takes place half in the present and half in the past, cutting back and forth between the two storylines in a way that enhances each.
In this case, the past plot (involving Michelle Williams as Lee’s wife, in addition to a full performance from Chandler) very skillfully and judiciously reveals what made Lee the shattered person he now is and why he can’t stand remaining in his hometown any longer than necessary.
The less said about Lee’s past the better — suffice it to say that the joy and verve Lee lives his life with in early past scenes is thoroughly and utterly absent from every fibre of his being in present-day — but Manchester by the Sea gets full marks for how well each half supports the other.
Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan puts his expertise as a playwright to good use here, toggling between the time periods like they were scene changes. He also stages his actors in ways that don’t always feel real, though, in ways that don’t always lend themselves naturally to the medium of film.
Casey Affleck has ridden on his brother’s coattails for decades. When he wasn’t tagging along for appearances in Good Will Hunting, Chasing Amy, and 200 Cigarettes, he was co-starring with Ben’s BFF Matt in Gerry, Interstellar, and the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy (to say nothing of starring in Ben’s directional debut, Gone Baby Gone).
In Manchester by the Sea, Casey finally and fully steps onto even ground as his big bro and entirely on the basis of his own talents. His performance as Lee initially seems overly mumbly, like Heath Ledger’s in Brokeback Mountain, but the layers he exposes as the movie unfolds show a complex, three-dimensional piece of acting belying its initial simplicity.
Williams is reliably excellent, as is Chandler, in roles that could have been thankless but grow into fully formed characters through flashbacks.
There are some movies that, regardless of their artistry and brilliance, are hard to watch a second time. Modern tragedies like Requiem for a Dream, Irreversible, Schindler’s List, The Sweet Hereafter, and Tusk are all such films, so emotionally exhausting an experience once that a second time could very justifiably be argued too much to take.
Manchester by the Sea is one of the best dramas of 2016, without a doubt. But I don’t think I could take it again.