Let’s just get this out of the way at the start, if you do not like depressing stories then this movie might not be for you. It is not exactly what one might call uplifting. Having said that, I would still urge everybody to watch this movie, despite any reservations you might have.
The story follows Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a very sombre, downtrodden, introspective janitor who is left as the sole guardian of his 16-year-old nephew (Lucas Hedges) after the death of his brother (Kyle Chandler). It also occasionally jumps back in time to show us the breakup of Lee’s marriage to Randi (Michelle Williams) some years previously.
When discussing most great performances, the word “commanding” usually comes to mind. When you picture a great performance, you tend to picture an actor throwing their performance all over the screen, getting right up in the audience’s face. Exclaiming, emoting, amplifying. Casey Affleck is the polar opposite of all of that in this movie. He is so perfectly understated in pretty much every way. This is not a movie where the main characters often express their emotions out loud. They bury them deep down, they disguise them any way they can. A lesser actor could have easily turned this into a melodrama but Affleck nails the tone perfectly. His understated performance means that when we get a glimpse into how his character is really feeling, it is all the more powerful because of how at arms length we have been kept the rest of the time.
Speaking of the tone of the movie, Kenneth Lonergan, the director and screenwriter, manages to balance the tone exquisitely throughout the two hours fifteen minute run time. The dialogue in the script feels so real. The way people act around death and tragedy. The way they try to talk around it. The way they try to comfort people. Lonergan’s script perfectly encapsulates these aspects of life. He manages, for the most part, to resist the temptation to have his characters burst out into angry monologues. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good angry monologue and I especially love really witty clever over the top dialogue but to have them in this movie would be a betrayal of the characters, the story and the tone that Lonergan has created. He wants to draw us into this world of real sorrow and he more than succeeds. Not only does he manage to successfully draw us into this world, he manages to encapsulate us in it.
Everything about this movie is slow. To some that might sound like a bad thing but to rush through this story would have be a terrible disservice. Every look shared between characters lingers for just a little longer than it normally would. Every awkward moment is as drawn out as possible. A scene involving a gurney and an ambulance in particular jumps to mind for just ringing out the awkwardness for as long as possible. The editing is never quick or frantic but calm and measured. The cinematography shows off the great beauty of the world, but somehow always manages to show it in a light that is empty and lonely. The film is as cold and distant as the temperature of the icy town of Manchester By The Sea itself.
Lesley Barber’s score is possibly the greatest part of this movie. It’s sweeping, lush and incredibly beautiful. The score perfectly contrasts with the downbeat tone that every other aspect of the movie plays to. The real genius of this score is how much you miss and notice it when it’s not around. It makes a noticeable impact when it arrives and leaves a gaping hole when it’s not present which of course works brilliantly as it tends to vanish at Lee’s low moments, reinforcing the gaping hole in his life. In pretty much any other year I would be amazed if it did not win the Oscar for best score but given that it happens to be up against a certain LA based musical juggernaut I can see why it might not take home the golden statue this year.
For all this talk of the movie being slow paced, it’s surprising how it never manages to be ponderous or dull and manages to keep hold of your attention throughout. Part of that is down to the brilliant execution of the story. The non-linear nature of the script, skipping between two different time periods, leaves the audience curious to fill in the blanks. For the first half of the movie, the question is “What caused Lee Chandler to become the way he is?”Once the answer to this question is revealed (I will not spoil it but the reveal is well worth the wait), the question for the rest of the film is “How can this character move on from what happened to them?” and “Can they move on from what happened to them?”
The supporting cast is rich in talent down the line. Full of character actors you’ll undoubtedly recognise and like but probably not be able to name and actors relatively new to the scene that show a lot of promise. Kyle Chandler, who’s character surname is rather confusingly also Chandler, manages to bring that lovable good-hearted charm that we’ve so often seen from him to this role. As a side note, I love Kyle Chandler in every movie I’ve seen him in. I feel like I should finally give in and watch Friday Night Lights just because of him. It was also nice to see Kara Hayward again, as she was ever so good in Moonrise Kingdom. It’s good to see her grace our screens more, if only for a short while.
Lucas Hedges does a very commendable job in the role of Patrick. He has certainly proved that he has acting chops, and I’m positive he will be gracing our screens quite a bit in the coming years.
Now we get to best performance in the entire movie. Michelle Williams is barely in this picture. I don’t actually know how much screen time she receives but I’d hazard a guess that it is around 20 minutes. To get second billing in a film that is 140 minutes long when you are hardly even in it tells you the power of Williams’ performance. Anybody who watches enough movies will already be well aware that Williams is one of the best actresses currently working but in this movie she somehow still finds ways to surprise us with her talent. She gives the best performance out of the entire cast and possibly the best performance of her entire career. (When you take a look at her career, that is really saying something). Of course, her performance did have shades of Blue Valentine to me, being that both stories feature her as the wife in a dying marriage. In fact the first thing I wanted to do after watching this movie was to watch Blue Valentine, not just due to Williams being a part of both movies but due to their similar styles and tones. If you like that movie, I think you’ll very much like this one too.
The final scene between Affleck and Williams is some of the finest acting in recent memory. Please, if there are any actors reading this, just watch these two and stand, or sit, in awe at their talent. The incredibly emotional moment between them feels worthy of the final scene between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, just with not quite such exquisite dialogue.
It does sound like a complete cliche but there are moments in the movie when it honestly feels like you are not watching actors, but glimpse the lives of real people. Every single character feels so well fleshed out, no matter how significant they are in the bigger picture of the story. They all seem like they have had a full life before the events of this movie and will continue to have one after the end credits roll.
One of the boldest things about this movie, this is something I particularly like, is that the two characters we spend the most time with, Lee and Patrick, are really not that likable at all. Lee is miserable, severely lacking charm and spends the entire runtime making decisions and doing things that are bound to frustrate most people watching. His nephew, Patrick, is not much better. He is a self-absorbed, cocky 26-year-old who spends most of the movie complaining and whining.
I love that our lead characters are not that likeable. When it comes to movies, people seem to confuse likeable characters with engaging characters. Now sometimes they are one and the same but not always. The screenwriting book “Save the Cat” famously says that early on in the story the protagonist must do something to make himself likeable to the audience such as saving a cat from being run over by a car. Manchester By The Sea could have easily been ruined by making it’s two leads too likeable, or charming, or funny, but it resists that temptation and is all the better for it.
You may not walk out of this movie entertained. You might not feel the urge to go rewatch it again anytime soon. Honestly, I actually don’t feel the need to watch this movie again for a very long time. If ever. When you do walk out of the film however, or more likely stand up from your slouched position on the couch in your living room since people don’t go to the movies to watch films like this, there will be certain aspects of the film that I can guarantee will stick with you. This is not a movie you will forget about anytime soon.
Brilliant performances across the board, a well-measured script and a beautifully lush score combine to give this melancholic, hard-hitting tale real power and presence.