Given the award show related hype surrounding MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, I made it a priority to see it as soon as possible. What I found was a movie about profound sadness and not much else.
A man returns home due to the death of his brother and finds that he was named the guardian of his teenage nephew. Now he must decide how this newfound responsibility of taking care of someone with whom he used to be very close fits in with the life he made for himself. He is also forced to deal with tragedy and his own personal demons.
The story is an interesting one, but overall it falls well short of greatness in multiple aspects. The first act takes way too long to establish the current state of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck). By the point he even finds out he is now going to be responsible for his nephew, the film feels about an hour deep. The mechanisms by which they provide exposition of past events is a bit clunky. I’m not asking for every film to have a happy ending, but the culmination of MANCHESTER doesn’t even provide much of anything even resembling “bittersweetness”.
Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t feel like Kenneth Lonergan deserved nominations for either his screenplay or the directing. The pieces were set in place, but the scenes just lacked something, and there were a few times where I was puzzled by directorial decisions that were made. In fact, many of the scenes felt like they were a dress rehearsal caught on film and used in the final cut.
That brings me to my other big complaint, whereby another nomination feels undeserved. While I like Casey Affleck, a lot of his past work being of high quality, I didn’t feel like his performance in MANCHESTER was good enough. I realize he was probably trying to show Lee’s reaction to tragedy by going stoic and not showing much of an emotional response to the grief. The emotional elements involved throughout the film were likely enough to help most audience members become attached to his character, but how my favorite Affleck portrayed the character lacked the power that other actors have brought to similar roles. Maybe under a more seasoned director, or with a larger budget where more time could be spent during filming analyzing this or that (pun intended), they would’ve hit better notes, so to speak.
The ladies of the film really did great work, though relegated to minor roles. I would have loved to see more work from Michelle Williams, whose character had such significant potential. Even had they added just one more extended flashback scene to show what she talks to her ex-husband about when they meet on the street, it could have made the movie considerably better. Gretchen Mol had a very complex character, whose actions off-screen shape a significant portion of how characters are responding to the initiating tragedy, and yet we essentially only get two scenes with her in the entire film.
I have no complaints at all about the performance from Lucas Hedges. While I might have expected him to react differently to the loss of his father, I know grief manifests itself differently from person to person, so I wouldn’t want to try to invalidate the way it came across here. He did show signs of being a talent to watch in future roles. As always, Kyle Chandler executes well, but this role didn’t really play up to any of his strengths, and he didn’t have enough dialogue to do much with, nor was he involved in many scenes. I guess that’s to be expected, as he plays the brother/father whose death is a catalyst for the film.
I’m going to have a hard time recommending this to anyone who isn’t simply trying to see all the nominees. Its nature as a tragedy makes it harder to watch than many other kinds of film, and the issues I had with the script and performances make it even tougher to advocate for. It’s certainly not a bad film, as you’ll see by my rating, but it’s not Best Picture worthy. By far.
My rating: 75 out of 100
If you’re going to wait until DVD (Blu-ray, streaming, whatever), you may as well watch GONE BABY GONE first.