By: Mark Di Stefano
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
With movies, we’ve been accustomed to it’s structure, plot-beats, monologues and any other device used to keep us in our seats. Whether it’s cheesy dialogue, over-acting, or just defying all dangerous obstacles to save the world, no matter if it’s the bottom of the barrel or an Oscar winner we forgive these movies because, well, they’re movies. They’re not real.
Manchester By The Sea IS real. Yes, this is a movie; It has a beginning, middle and end like every other one out there, but it’s one that hits closer to home than most. It’s a powerful experience, grounded in spectacular realism that can’t be compared to anything else this year.
Casey Affleck gives the performance of his career as Lee Chandler, a Boston janitor and handyman who suddenly goes back home to Manchester after tragedy strikes his family. When named guardian of his brother’s teenage son he grapples whether he can handle that responsibility, and whether he can overcome the haunting memories of his past when coming home, namely when coming face to face with his ex-wife (Michelle Williams).
While everyone knows about Ben Affleck’s resurgence as a top director over the past decade, it is arguable that Casey Affleck had more of a quiet resurgence in comparison. Many believe that after directing 2010’s I’m Still Here that he sort of derailed his career. I don’t believe in that assumption. Whether it was The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford, Gone Baby Gone, Out of The Furnace or a handful of other movies he made over the past decade or so, Casey Affleck always gave strong performances. To me, he’s become synonymous with the “every man,” making you believe that whatever environment that he was a part of, that he was born and bred there. After seeing Affleck play Chandler, it will be hard to find a performance that’s just as heartbreaking as it is heartbreakingly real. You can see the pain Lee carries with him throughout, and how he struggles to get by and how hard it is for him to move forward. Affleck recently won a Golden Globe for his performance, and once you see this movie, you may agree even to say that he may go home with the Oscar come end of February.
I have to edit myself: there is another performance this year that was just as heartbreaking (maybe even more so), and it belonged to Michelle Williams. Williams is one of the best modern actresses working today, and her performance as Randi will leave you speechless. When more and more of the story is revealed, we see how much was lost. Versus Lee’s numbness to life, Randi explodes with emotion, leaving you breathless. The dynamic that Williams and Affleck have on screen together, and their scenes together will long be remembered after the credits roll. Kyle Chandler is also great as Joe, Lee’s brother, and Lucas Hedges as Joe’s son gave one of the best breakthrough performances this year.
Resurgence seems to be the theme here, and that’s because writer/director Kenneth Lonnergan’s last critically successful movie was 2000’s You Can Count On Me. It is Lonnergan, who masterfully paints this picture and keeps the pace and tone appropriate throughout. If any other director was at the helm, it could’ve been more droll, more sad, more dark; it could’ve been a completely other movie. Lonnergan, was able to teeter along the tightrope, balancing realism and honesty, without being overtly dramatic, keeping us interested throughout.
Yes, there are movies that use themes and metaphors and all the narrative-jibber-jabber to convey powerful ideas, but this isn’t that movie. Some of you may overlook at first because it may come off as slow or depressing, and at times it can be, but (unfortunately) life can be slow and depressing. Life can also be unexpectedly funny, maybe when not even wanted at all.
There is nothing fake here. Nothing feels forced. Short, awkward conversations with coaches about death? Check. Forced conversations that result in silence? Check. These sort of scenes would likely have some forced humor in other movies, but here they’re real and at times, painful to watch. Not because they’re bad scenes, but because I’m reminded of moments where I’ve felt the feelings that these characters felt.
From the score to the cinematography to the extras, everything here serves the environment of Manchester. No sweeping camera movements to excite you when it may not be needed. No overly dramatic score (Kudos to Lesley Barber, her modern-classical score sets the stage appropriately). Nothing feels out of place or out of the ordinary.
If you told me that Manchester By The Sea was a documentary about life in Manchester, CT, I would believe you. This film is real to the point where it will leave you stirring with emotion, to the point where it hits home for many of us. We know these characters in our lives. We know their struggles, their triumphs, and their heartaches. However, if you’re willing and able to open up to this movie, you’ll be in the presence of one of the most profound, incredible, cinematic experiences of our time.