Most mainstream movies are afraid of being slices of life. People usually want escapism from movies, not to stare in a mirror and see all the hopelessness and monotony they’re running away from reflected right back at them.
In the world of independent movies, where filmmakers are (generally) more interested in making art than making money, it’s fairly common to find films that project life in introspective ways. Such an experience is understandably not for everyone, but Manchester by the Sea is here to help anyone who has had a loved one die process the accompanying feelings.
Matt Damon was originally supposed to direct and star in Manchester by the Sea, but before production began he dropped out of his directorial duties and was replaced by screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan. Then Damon decided not to star too and The Office’s John Krasinski took his place, and after that Casey Affleck took his place.
Affleck was unquestionably the best choice, but Manchester by the Sea would have benefitted from a different directorial touch. Affleck is strikingly honest in a tale that balances mundanity and tragedy, though the film leans too heavily towards the former.
Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a janitor/repairman in Quincy living a lonely but simple life. That is, until his brother Kyle (Kyle Chandler) — whose health had been steadily worsening — dies. Lee must then return to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea (actually the name of a town in Massachusetts) to oversee funeral arrangements and look after his brother’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
Other than a heartbreaking peek into Lee’s past, that’s really all there is to the story. It unfolds without an easily discernible three-act structure, instead preferring to follow Lee and Patrick’s days following Kyle’s death like a shadow on the wall: capturing moments tender and moments dull with equal interest.
Manchester by the Sea achieves remarkable tonal equilibrium thanks to Lonergan’s screenplay. It delves in and out of a variety of emotions: loss, love, anger, peace, futility, depression, confusion, joy — it’s all out in the open and it’s quietly chaotic. As the film digs into the romantic lives and grieving processes of both Lee and Patrick, two things are unavoidable: one, that you’ll identify with one or more of its raw interactions; two, it’ll be darkly comedic.
It’s impossible to peer into the existential messiness of humanity without having at least a little laugh at our own expense, and Manchester by the Sea embraces that. The bleak but funny exchanges between Lee and Patrick are reminiscent of the banter between young Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, which makes sense: Damon had his screenwriter fingers all over the film even after stepping back as the director. Lucas Hedges even looks like a younger Matt Damon, and Casey Affleck — well, looks like a younger Ben Affleck.
The juxtaposition of life’s routine and isolated tragedy works to great effect largely on the shoulders of Casey Affleck. He is a magnificently fragile bundle of complexities in Manchester by the Sea, and he drives home the film’s toughest scenes with resonant power. This is an Oscar-worthy performance and one that should not be missed.
Though there is a lot of Manchester by the Sea that I wish I did miss. The movie’s biggest problem is irritatingly pervasive: a combination of slipshod direction and painfully slow pacing weights the whole thing down. Yes, death isn’t realistically an overtly dramatic deal (much of the time), but Lonergan moves Manchester along at an awkward crawl. It’s also full of curious shots that lack visual intentionality and weird soundtrack choices that distract from the proceedings. As such, it is disorienting in its slowness, and I found myself checking a watch I didn’t have on several occasions.
The tedium contains meaningful depictions of the human experience though, and overall Manchester by the Sea succeeds due to its collection of reflective moments. And because of Casey Affleck — third actor’s the charm.