Best Picture Nominee Movie Review: Manchester By the Sea
By Steven Slater
February 26, 2017
Sometimes life gives you lemons and you crawl in a hole and pretend the lemons don’t exist while rocking back and forth silently crying. That’s this movie in a nutshell, goodnight everybody!
Manchester by the Sea is about a man who has been given a lot of lemons. Casey Affleck inhabits the role of Lee Chandler in this film, and that divorced maintenance man is the focal point of the whole story. He is someone who is just an ordinary guy living near Boston, but somewhere along the line he drew the short straw. The film plays its cards slowly, flipping back and forth between two periods of Lee’s life to gradually unfurl this character.
You may think I am crazy, but there’s an odd test I have for determining a great performance: Do I start acting like that person right after the movie? Sometimes I enjoy watching Lawrence of Arabia just to strut around like Peter O’Toole afterwards and say things like “Nothing is written!” with profound inflection. After watching Affleck’s performance, I had his quiet look on my face, a sense that I can say more by not speaking. The degree to which he creates the character is profound, and I could indeed see him earning his first Oscar. He has something in common with James Dean, where there is a lot brewing just beneath the surface. Don’t ask me why I am making a bunch of 1950s and 60s movie references. I must have just seen a movie with a great performance by an actor who does just that.
Kenneth Lonergan wrote and directed Manchester by the Sea. He made another film I remember fondly, You Can Count on Me, which has similarities to this recent work. That film also had some great performances, and introduced me to one of my favorite modern actors, Mark Ruffalo. I have liked Affleck a lot ever since he played Robert Ford, but Manchester is definitely his best work. Lonergan has a way of drawing out twisted souls, and laying them bare to see. It is not always easy to watch, but there is an undeniable impact. Partner that with great thespians, and that creates a film worth viewing. Affleck gives an incredible performance, as do Michelle Williams and Kyle Chandler (who plays Joe Chandler...hmm). Lucas Hedges is the newcomer portraying Lee’s nephew Patrick, in a quietly hilarious performance that provides most of this film’s relief from the melancholy flavor. He also helps draw Lee a bit out from the sadness pervading his life.
While the movie is definitely not meant to put a smile on your face, its saving grace is that Lonergan knows that life is absurd and funny at the darkest moments. I may have been prepared for this by hearing his conversation with Terry Gross on NPR before I even saw the film, but the theater audience seemed to get it for the most part as well. Mel Brooks once said, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” Manchester has a lot of cut fingers, but it also tosses in some open sewers.
Oh, did you want to know what the film is about? Just ask yourself, do you like lemons? If you enjoy movies that feel like they are about real people in real situations, with some lemon juice, see this movie. Plus, seeing this film supports the beginning of a new era in filmmaking, as Amazon provided financial backing for the movie (much like Netflix did last year’s Beasts of No Nation). Manchester is a smaller scale story, with a deep aching heart.
Slater Grade: A