Let’s just get right to the point here: in “Manchester By The Sea,” Casey Affleck is as great, if not even greater, than you’ve heard. The movie itself is not.
The film, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, tells the story of Lee Chandler (Affleck), a sad sack of a man who returns to his sleepy Massachusetts seaside hometown after the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). In a surprise twist, Joe has made Lee the sole guardian of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee finds himself unable to emotionally deal with the new circumstances and becoming a guardian coupled with the loss of his brother become nearly too much for him to bear. Because of a tragedy in his past involving his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), he’s forced to confront his darkest demons in an attempt to rise above the struggle.
The film is a devastating, emotional exploration of sadness and the challenge of coping with tragedy and crushing grief. Lonergan and his actors truly understand the grieving process and as result, the story feels authentic and human. The film is packed with more realism than sentimentality, and the screenplay is more observational than original. There are more than a few plot points that scream ‘gimmick’ rather than credibility, and what should be a deeply personal male melodrama at times comes across as a bit standoffish.
This is Affleck’s movie to be sure. His nuanced, heartbreaking performance is absolutely the very definition of ‘Oscar caliber.’ Never does it feel sensational or showy; he creates a pathetic, dejected man who is struggling to adapt to meaningful male bonding through family tragedy. The supporting performances from Hedges and Williams are top-notch too, with both actors delivering scene after scene of agony, pain and emotional torment with a masterful balance of tenderness.
Make no mistake, this isn’t a fun movie to watch: it’s aching with honesty, packed with complex layers of raw, bitter emotion that are painfully stripped away to the core as we watch.
While it’s a genuine look at the grieving process, I wanted this movie to be so much better than it actually is. I feel Affleck’s incredible performance is clouding everyone’s opinion of this film and if they’d simply take a step back, they’d notice the multitude of aspects that don’t work, like classical music used for the score and the poor direction that feels more like a Robert Altman rip-off than a sincere, original style.
Even so, it’s one worth watching simply for the lead performance.