Manchester by the Sea is a film for those of you who thought Leonardo DiCaprio winning Best Actor last year wasn’t quite enough of a guaranteed outcome. It’s also a role model in the art of gut-punching subtlety. Movies categorized by fans as “Oscar bait” tend to include overacting for the sake of excessive drama and misery for the sake of misery. Manchester by the Sea, while sharing a similar tone, overdoes nothing and accomplishes what its more pretentious peers can only strive for. There’s no ten second “and the nominees are” clip that does this film justice. Just watch it, and be buried in a glass coffin of your own emotions.
This latest entry in the Massachusetts-based tragedies subgenre welcomes another fantastic film. Seriously, the cinematic life expectancy in that state tops out at around 35. Manchester by the Sea tackles the most difficult possible way to tell this moving story. Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler is abrasive, withdrawn, and genuinely unlikeable throughout the first act. While his characterization doesn’t transform all that much, our perception of his constant demeanor changes drastically as the story progresses. Despite a dominant lead character that rubs viewers the wrong way before we understand him, the film doesn’t suffer any period of frustrated confusion.
Would it have been too much to make Kyle Chandler’s character Kyle Chandler, instead of Joe Chandler? I don’t know. He and Michelle Williams provide great supporting help to Affleck’s lead. Lucas Hedges also finesses his way through a very difficult role, evading the annoying teenager trope that has ruined so many promising characters. But the movie very much belongs to Affleck, who takes a mentally distant character and makes him magnetic. You might find yourself internally recasting Ben Affleck films with Casey as you walk away from this one. Admit it, he would’ve made a great Matt Murdock in a movie that wasn’t terrible
Manchester by the Sea continues to remind me of one of my favorite 2015 movies, Room. While the two share very little plot, I feel as if they’re unintentional companion pieces. They approach horrible situations and histories with a quieter heartbreak that you don’t typically see in dramatic movies. Brilliant acting enables subtle storytelling, which makes the whole experience feel brutally realistic. Both films have “climaxes”, so to speak, that occur halfway through the movie. The necessary time to reflect on the aftermath of those events is then taken in the second half, instead of how most movies have to hurry and wrap it up immediately after their biggest moments. Both feature excellent supporting performances, yet I have a tough time considering either to be a Best Picture because a large majority of how much I love the movie comes from a single performance. They’re both clearly cut out for that more appropriate award. Brie Larson swept the major awards, deserving each one, and I suspect Casey Affleck will do the same.
Movies don’t need humor, but I never want to hear the “this was just too dark and serious to contain humor or fun” excuse ever again. Because once Manchester by the Sea made me laugh, several times actually, humor was confirmed to be inbounds for every movie ever made. In fact, the funniest line in the entire film arrives moments after the second most emotional scene in the entire movie. No spoilers here, but it involves frozen chicken. And nothing about it feels out of place. Manchester by the Sea feels less like watching a movie than it does uncomfortably observing someone’s unfortunate life. This filmmaking will almost make you feel as if you’re intruding. It is an intimate display of nuanced acting and honest writing, a combination destined to produce one of 2016’s best movies.