This is Part Three of my 2017 Oscar Watch where I watch all of the Best Picture nominees in the weeks running up to the Academy Awards. For other entries, click here:
- “Manchester by the Sea”
- “La La Land”
- “Hacksaw Ridge”
- “Hidden Figures”
For all of my 2017 Academy Awards picks, click here.
“Manchester by the Sea” is a good movie and sometimes a great one, but you will feel empty once the credits roll. While that is the point of Kenneth Lonergan’s darkly comic film, this undeniable emptiness keeps me from lauding “Manchester by the Sea” as a masterpiece or anything close to it.
In fact, after more than two hours of utter depression, I have to wonder why this movie needed to be made. Life is short and brutish, Kenneth Lonergan certainly falls into the Hobbesian camp, but “Manchester by the Sea” is devoid of any hope. Instead, it batters the audience with tragedy on top of tragedy while its main characters seem nearly impervious to the horrors around them.
Let me be clear; the writing, acting, and direction are excellent, but the plot of the film borders on tragedy porn. While the film attempts to illicit boatloads of tears, its characters’ stunted emotional responses kept me from knowing how they felt and, ultimately, why I should care for these mostly unlikeable characters.
Abandon All Hype, Ye Who Enter Here
Before you bring out your pitchforks, let me reiterate that this is a very good movie that deserves its Best Picture nomination. However, in my subjective opinion, this film does not live up to the hype and nor could it ever have. Perhaps my disappointment was my own doing; after hearing rave reviews about “Manchester by the Sea” since the Sundance Film Festival in January 2016, I thought that this would be a game-changing analysis of grief and human tragedy. While it has ample amounts of grief and tragedy, its true-to-life formula removes any chance of introspection and dissection. Therefore, the film becomes a snapshot of a tragic life with no emotional or intellectual payoff. In my opinion, excessive tragedy does not a good drama make.
Jump in the Sea, Lee
Lee Chandler, played masterfully by Casey Affleck, must return to Manchester to care for his nephew, Patrick Chandler as played by Lucas Hedges, after his father dies from congenital heart disease. This set up is rife with dramatic potential, but it does not contain enough sadness in Lonergan’s view.
Lee is given perhaps one of the most over-the-top, “sad” backstories ever put on film. I will admit that, at first, it rationalizes Lee’s emotional ineptitude and inability to care for his nephew, but throughout the film, Lee simply comes off as a weak asshole—there is no redemption here, Lee does not reflect on his shortcomings; his greatest show of love is buying a two-bedroom apartment so his nephew can visit him once in a while.
Even prior to the tragedy, it is Lee’s nonchalant, uncaring attitude that leads to his own downfall. Am I supposed to sympathize with someone who beats people up at a bar for no reason? If he barely shows emotion, how am I supposed to know what this character wants? Perhaps Lee wants nothing because he thinks he deserves nothing. If that is the case, why is he the subject of the film at all?
Yet again, I understand the slice-of-life strategy behind the film, but I do not think that it automatically warrants universal praise. If Lonergan wanted true realism, I’m sure that he could have made a documentary about this very common, very real tragedy.
Despite my grievances, Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler to incredible effect. Without such strong acting prowess, this realism of this film would have fallen flat. Of course, the woe-is-me backstory does require a bit of melodramatic acting (i.e. stealing a police officer’s pistol to unsuccessfully commit suicide), but Affleck is incredible to watch. He plays an emotionally dead person with incredible skill and the rage simmering beneath his visage is truly masterful. If for nothing else, Affleck is worth the price of admission to this film. Although his emotional blue-balling is annoying, Lee Chandler is a true representation of how a particular person would deal with insurmountable grief.
In addition, Michelle Williams is phenomenal as Lee’s ex-wife, Randi, but she is not given enough screen time. In fact, Randi comes the closest to delivering the emotional payoff that this film deserved. There is a scene near the end of the film where Randi tries to prod Lee out of his shell and Williams gives the performance of a lifetime. However, Lee’s response is a bunch of exasperated breaths followed by his favorite pastime; pummeling an innocent townie at a bar.
Williams is the favorite to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and I think this scene alone could cement her inevitable win; however, I have to mention that her role in this film is essentially a glorified cameo and an Oscar win might not be fair to the other nominees. All in all, this scene could have changed my entire perception of “Manchester by the Sea,” but instead it highlighted just how miserable Lee is. In addition, the potential crescendo is instead overshadowed by Lee stating, “I can’t beat it.” Lee can’t overcome his personal tragedy and, in turn, the audience has no chance of winning either.
Similar to Affleck, Lucas Hedges plays Patrick Chandler very strongly. However, Lee’s stunted emotions make sense whereas Patrick’s seem unnatural. Patrick’s father has died, but he does not cry until days (weeks?) later while looking at some frozen chicken legs (yes, really). Patrick’s mother was an alcoholic, so he clearly did not have an easy life, but his father raised Patrick on his own. I found it uncomfortable that Patrick had seemingly no emotion. In fact, many of the potentially dramatic scenes zig towards comedy when they should have zagged towards genuine, human emotion.
Beyond the Sea
Most surprisingly, “Manchester by the Sea” is often and consistently funny. While I appreciate the writing skill required to milk comedy out of tragedy, it felt very at odds with what is occurring. Plus, it was even more frustrating to see Lee and Patrick poke fun at death without actually feeling the weight of their current plight. I understand the need for comedy when life looks bleak, but there is never any emotional payoff to counteract the jokey, grim nature of the two title characters. “Manchester by the Sea” wears its dark, Irish comedy on its sleeve, but its heart is hidden far beyond the sea.