Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is exactly the kind of film the Oscars scream for; it has haunting performances, utterly beautiful cinematography, and plucks hard at each and every heart string in the audience until all emotion is utterly and completely spent. In spite of all of this, however, it feels like Lonergan’s film is missing something, and it is simply because he makes the audience completely aware of this at all times.
Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, tasked with taking care of his nephew Patrick (the shimmering Lucas Hedges) after his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) passes away. This sudden dramatic turn of events thrusts Lee back into his old life, a life he is keen to forget, if only he didn’t keep stumbling over it and tripping over it every time he strolls down a neighborhood street. Through the most tragic of circumstances Lee is the epitome of a shell of a man, tormented by and haunted by his past.
Make no mistake, everything being said about Casey Affleck in this role is completely true; he is devastating. The film breaks every heart it can possibly reach, through Lee and his ex-wife Randi (the always-enigmatic Michelle Williams), who are forced to look at their pasts and some hard truths about their own lives. There are scenes in this that are utterly painful to watch because of the raw emotion spilled onto the screen, and the acting is nothing short of brilliance. Yet, the film itself fails to live up to the stellar level of performance within, and because the acting is so good, the other flaws within the film seem infinitely more glaring.
Lonergan’s script is a disaster, in all honesty, in such a way that it is still as coherent as possible. It jumps around chronologically to events in Lee’s past at random and without warning, and this effect is somewhat jarring. It doubles down on this and is worse for it when the film dangles a promising story-thread-to-be in front of the audience before snatching it away and smashing them back into the present day. This was likely deliberate, as it is almost Lonergan’s way of the story itself trying to force Lee to deal with reality, but it leaves behind what is in itself almost a more fascinating plot or two along the way as it tosses Lee about in its thematic currents and what he is to do, now faced with the fact that he must care for his nephew. In a way this is a disservice, because as much as the film seeks to rip out the hearts of its audience, it almost dares not tread too close, holding back at just the last second to its detriment- Lee Daniels did it in Precious when he cut away to random music selections intercutting tragedy with happy family photos, and Lonergan does it here.
The film also fails itself in the most technical sense; way too many scenes in it feel like they’re “waiting to begin.” A great movie should immerse you within its world and its action and it should feel natural, but many of the scenes Lonergan shoots here linger for a moment before they actually begin. Perhaps the fault lies more with the editing, but for this to have passed the final cut is criminal and utterly ruins any sense of tension or believablility that he is trying to build.
In spite of its failings, however, it really is something that must be experienced by anyone who studies or loves acting. Affleck, Williams, and Hedges in particular are absolutely fantastic and should be praised for their work here for years to come. It is a devastating masterpiece of tragedy that serves to remind us that real life doesn’t always work out the way we want it to, and for that it is completely and totally beautiful. 8 out of 10 stars.