Film Review: 'Manchester by the Sea'
It was a movie that wowed audiences in the 2016 film festival circuit, inciting standing ovations and tear-filled eyes for positive word-of-mouth. Now, in sharp contrast to its slow pacing and bleak subject matter, Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea is a force to be reckoned with on the awards stage. So you could imagine my surprise when, after finally viewing this movie, I was greeted with a somber show that, while well-acted, barely lived up to the expectations of the hype that surrounded it.
Manchester's greatest asset is Casey Affleck, who gives a hell of a performance as Lee Chandler, a Boston-based handyman who lives in total despond. His routine of fixing up homes and ending each day with a nightcap is interrupted by a phone call, delivering the news of the death of his beloved older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), of a heart attack. But it's hard to blame Lee for his unremitting depression and his stoic demeanor as he treads through life unenthused, inciting brawls instead of taking flirtatious invites from women at the bar.
So Lee makes the hour-long drive to the quaint coastal town of Manchester-by-the-Sea, where it's difficult to see where the ocean ends and the overcast sky begins. A mellow, operatic score underlines his journey - an unusual choice, given the film's subject matter and its leading man - and it continues until Lee reconvenes with family, including his now-fatherless sixteen-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a hockey star, band member, and juggler of two girlfriends.
As if Joe's untimely death wasn't enough, Lee discovers via Joe's will that he is to be Patrick's guardian. It's news that doesn't sit well with Lee; a stark difference from a few flashbacks to earlier, happier times between the two. In fact, our movie-opening flashback shows a skinny-legged Lee wrestling around with then-little boy Patrick (Ben O'Brien) on the Chandler family boat that Joe pilots, looking back with affection at the uncle and nephew.
In the present, just like the slow-moving and mild-mannered Lee, Patrick also has trouble fully processing the death of his father. He prefers instead to order pizzas at home and invite his girlfriends over, as Lee generally stays out of the way. Their attitudes and dynamics are perplexing, but the weird thing about humanity is that everyone has a different way of grieving; Jake Gyllenhall in Demolition did it by ripping appliances apart with a sledgehammer. So what's so weird about a teenager grieving with pizza and sex?
READ MORE: Film Review: 'Demolition'
It's these bizarre occurrences that punctuate Manchester, with the uncle-nephew dynamic making up a large portion of the movie. The story is interrupted by sets of flashbacks to prior times - some happy, some sad. Not long after Joe's death, we see Joe in a hospital bed surrounded by Lee and family, when Joe is first diagnosed with his heart condition, given a timetable for what little life he has left. We see cozier times with his then-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), who has since moved on from Lee after circumstances too tragic to write.
The routine realism of Manchester is the movie's defining trait, and Lonergan attempts to utilize that to draw an intimate connection with his viewers, to tie their own traumatic family experiences to the ones Lee has in the film. As a result, we're often scraping around for something, anything to break up the dreary monotony of it all, even if it's a bad joke. In his tizzy, Lee forgets where he parked his car, as Patrick yammers on about freezing his balls off. And when they finally get in the car: "Did you buy this car in the 1920's? Where's the horse to pull this thing? Maybe we can get the horse to breathe on us for warmth." There are few moments like it sprinkled throughout the film, much like its flashbacks, seemingly without rhyme or reason.
We get it; these are hard times, and nobody is on their A-game by any means, a point that Lonergan repeatedly hammers home. But while the movie's themes of grief and familial struggle are effective, unfortunately, the film's dreadful pacing does it no favors. We're often left twiddling our thumbs throughout uninteresting filler dialogue, and throughout sequences that really only further illustrate Lee's despondent nature and Patrick's usual teenage struggles when they're already clearly understood.
And while Lonergan does have some redeeming qualities in his cast's acting prowess - both Affleck, Hedges, and Williams are perfect for their respective roles as an uncle, a nephew, and an ex-wife - they're let down by the aforementioned pacing issues, as well as some head-scratching choices in both editing and score. Almost every other scene there appears to be some sort of rogue cut or splice in between shots that serve no narrative function, and we question why they were even included. An operatic, sentimental score lines the movie that, although beautiful in its own right, fits like a shoe on the hand of the film. These artistic choices pull us out of the relationships we're supposed to be fully engaged in, and we wind up being more critical of the movie's shortcomings to the point where we're just waiting for the movie to finally end.
Manchester by the Sea could rival a good documentary in how real its characters feel. It's the very point of the film that its heavy-hitting drama is no fun to sit through, opting instead to portray life, death, and grief as it actually is, rather than flowering things up with a happy ending and a bow on top. But it's the entire package of visceral bleakness, combined with choppy, disjointed editing and a beautiful score that hardly fits with the movie it plays over, that renders the movie devoid of any color or vibrancy. Given its critical acclaim, there are absolutely things of value in here, and that's most apparent in its acting. But movie criticism is always highly subjective, and for me, Manchester just can't seem to sit well with me. Either that, or it's because I watched La La Land right before this one.
READ MORE: Film Review: 'La La Land'
Rated R. 137 minutes.
Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan.
Starring Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, and Lucas Hedges.