In the brooding film, Manchester by the Sea, we watch a grief-stricken irritable loner, Lee Chandler (2017 Academy Award Best Actor Casey Affleck) drown in self-effacing pain and rage. He works as a handyman in a Boston apartment complex and acts out his anger in meaningless bar fights and bullying of tenants.
Lee receives a phone call that changes his life. His older brother, Joe (played by Kyle Chandler), has died of a heart attack and Lee has been designated as the legal guardian of his sullen teenage son, Patrick (the remarkable Lucas Hedges). Dreading returning to his hometown, Manchester, in order to care for his nephew, we see–through a series of flashbacks– why Lee is so reluctant to return. The unspeakable tragedy which caused him to run away is revealed. Caught in depression and grief, he is incapable of displaying emotion towards his nephew, his ex-wife (the wondrous Michelle Williams), or what is left of his family.
The central plot is all about Lee and his psychological journey through tragedy and torment. But it is also about his nephew, Patrick, who is struggling with his own grief over his father’s death as well as his abandonment by his alcoholic mother.
Manchester by the Sea is a serious film, but not a great one. It’s slow moving enough to notice, especially the second half’s slackening pace. The viewer has to work patiently to understand the cutting back and forth between past and present, the only clue to the time-travel being the scenes where Patrick’s father, Joe, is still alive.
This movie has something to say, but doesn’t say it very well. Michelle Williams saves this movie from an even rockier ride. Though she has a small role as Lee’s ex-wife Randi, she gives us a gut-wrenching portrait of a damaged woman, injured by the tragedy, and regretting the horrifying invective she threw at Lee in a moment of tremendous heartbreak for both of them. In a powerful confrontation with Lee, this small yet significant performance is a treasure to behold. Her wounds are still trying to heal.
Casey Affleck, on the other hand, gives us a character with mannerisms that are unbelievable and dissonant with the emotional nature of the character he is playing. His portrait of Lee’s emotional detachment from the rest of the world is wooden with zero visual affect. Yes, he is traumatized so he can’t recapture the person he once was. None of us can. Yes, he needs to take care of himself first.
No one will punish Lee for what he did, for what he knows he did. So he spends the rest of his days punishing himself, consumed with guilt. And the only way he knows how to punish himself is by hurting others and pushing them away. Why didn’t they cast an actor adept at showing anguish in his eyes, visually, –in his soul–even while enduring an all-consuming suffering?
There are narrow ways men are allowed to deal with their feelings because they consider vulnerability to be weakness. A stunning performance does just that–show the vulnerability behind the facade. Manchester by the Sea, and particularly Casey Affleck, doesn’t seem interested in exploring mental illness more deeply and more courageously, showing more of its symptoms through a variety of facial expressions, at least in the eyes which are not shut down by the emotions they conceal. They should be haunting and disturbing, flecks of passion and damage.
This is Manchester by the Sea’s most glaring fault: This film misses an opportunity to look more critically and more complexly at how things are for someone so grief-stricken. But Manchester by the Sea also fails to examine the dangers of masculinity closing men off from their own feelings or experiences, rendering them emotionally broken. This movie received almost universal adulation but it is far less award-worthy.
Sorry, all of you who voted for it.