Movie Review : Manchester by the Sea (2016)
The 2017 Academy Awards are six days away only and excitement is starting to ramp up among movie fans for no discernible reason. The iconic yearly cerebration of mainstream movie has been a predictable dud since Ordinary People inexplicably beating Elephant Man and Raging Bull before forever being swept under the rug of history, showing how clueless the Academy is when it comes to celebrating good movies. Of all nine nominations for 2017, Kenneth Lonergan's directorial debut Manchester by the Sea seemed the most conventional: it's a LONG (137 minutes), sad and already celebrated movie made by a bespectacled white man. But, is it good? Of course it's good. There's WAY too much talented involved in this movie for it to fail. Is it one of the nine best movies of 2016, though? That's a more complicated discussion to have.
So, let's have it.
Manchester by the Sea is the story of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a janitor living an unremarkable (if a little lonely) life in Boston, who receives a phone call to announce the passing of his older brother Joe (the inimitable Kyle "Coach Taylor" Chandler). It was not unexpected, Joe's been suffering from congestive heart failure and was given five to ten years to live already, but it means Lee has to travel to Manchester, Massachusetts in order to oversee his brother's succession and take care of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). What Lee doesn't know is that his brother has one last curve ball in store for him: he declared him legal guardian of his son and arranged for his brother relocation to Manchester in his will. The city is full of unbearable ghosts for Lee, who will have to face them one more time in order to do right by his brother and his nephew.
There aren't many movies like Manchester by the Sea out there, which deal with death and loss in the way it does. Unlike for most movies, death is not an on-screen thing here but rather an emotional and legal reality. It's always been a foolproof dramatic ploy in Hollywood, if lives are at stake it means whatever's going on is important, but it's always a trying ordeal in real life also and writer and director of Manchester by the Sea Kenneth Lonergan tries to bridge the gap between the two realities. He basically attempted to construct dramatically riveting scenes out of a realistic relationship to death and it works more often than not. The early scenes, where Lee drives up to Manchester's hospital and becomes swarmed with memories of his brother while going through the legal process of making his death official are genuinely gut-wrenching. Manchester by the Sea is successful at portraying death in the peculiar, realistic way it aimed to.
Everybody's talking about Michelle Williams performance in Manchester by the Sea, but she's only in the movie for three and a half minutes or so. She's even got an Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. She's undeniably good, but are we losing our shit here? I mean, she got her work cut out for her (the movie builds-up to her big scene) and I'm really bothered by how stereotypical her character was. What is with this movie and exes who now date boring guys? Williams' character Randi now lives with an accountant-looking guy named Josh (Liam McNeill). Joe's ex Elise (the talented Gretchen Mol) now lives with a Jesus freak who's controlling behavior makes up for her own emotional instability. I may be unnecessarily harsh towards Michelle Williams here, but I hate being ushered into a weepy scene and I feel like it's all there was to her performance and I did not buy her half-baked ex-who's-not-over-the-protagonist character.
I liked Manchester by the Sea. It's an intelligent and uncomfortable movie with original ideas about how death should be addressed in mainstream fiction. Lots of stuff happens off-screen and it relies on the audience to connect the dots, which I always appreciate. I did not love it the same way I loved Moonlight, though. Movies about death and grief are always tricky because they can easily become weepy and obvious and there's a certain part of that in Manchester by the Sea. It is pretty adamant about making you cry and weepiness is somewhat of a zen state for me. I can't be moved to tears by a movie that expects me to be moved to tears, if that makes sense? That said, I wouldn't be too surprised if Manchester by the Sea ends up winning the Academy Award for Best Picture as it's kind of a safe, critics-proof choice. I would even command it because it conveys original ideas. But, you know: it's the Oscars. It never rewards the best movie of the year.