By: Henry Eden ~Campus News Editor~
In a field of films that stretch from an acclaimed callback to a different era of Hollywood to a long-awaited adaptation of one of the most important pieces of American dramatic literature, a film about one simple human experience has garnered some of the most positive critical responses of the year. Manchester by the Sea, nominated for six Academy Awards, takes an unflinching look at something people hope never to experience: grief.
Manchester is about the grief of one man. This is not, however, the grief that we live through and put behind us. This movie centers on an all-consuming and haunting despair that never goes away. The movie is painful and becomes increasingly difficult to watch as it goes on. These are all conscious and brilliant decisions made by writer and director Kenneth Lonergan.
The movie focuses on one man, but four characters create the majority of the plot. Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a janitor from Manchester, Mass. where the events of the movie take place. He no longer lives in Manchester. Kyle Chandler, known for his roles as a straight -edge man in films like The Wolf of Wall Street and his role on Friday Night Lights, plays his older brother Joe. Michelle Williams plays Lee Chandler’s ex-wife. Lucas Hedges plays Lee Chandler’s spirited high school-aged nephew, Patrick.
Oddly enough, the film begins in a manner that suggests a more lighthearted tone. The first few scenes of the movie are events in the daily life of Lee Chandler. He doesn’t say much at all, and he navigates life without interaction or care.
At this point, one might think that they had seen this movie before: a character who is down on his luck finds redemption in someone else.
That’s not this movie.
The main question in the movie in the first half is why Lee is the way that he is. The main question in the second part of the movie is if he will ever get better. The answer to that question is no, not really. The kind of grief that Lee experiences does not let up. He does not suddenly see the light through his nephew. He does not reconnect with people in his hometown. In fact, he does almost nothing. He does exactly as much as he can with what life has placed on him. It is a real look at a human being who will never be who he was.
As Lee navigates Manchester we see that this is a small town where everyone knows everyone. Furthermore, everyone in this town who knows Lee is incredibly tentative around him. Everyone who doesn’t know him knows his name, clearly aware of what he did or what happened to him like a horrific legend.
I wanted more than anything to find out what it was, but when we are finally given the scene in flashback, I almost wished that I hadn’t watched it.
Affleck is brilliant, simply. His character gets only the smallest possible bit better over the course of this movie. This is not a big, boasting performance. Although it is some of the best acting I’ve ever watched.
Williams is brilliant, too, and a heartbreaking scene between these two toward the end is the most naturalistic and genuine scene in the film.
The relationship between Lee and Patrick is at the heart of the movie. Patrick’s grief is very different from Lee’s. After his father dies, he invites friends over. He distracts himself and doesn’t appear upset. Joe’s death was expected, but Patrick deals with it quickly, and is only upset at the thought of his dads body in a freezer.
The first and final scenes of the movie are both the same: Lee and Patrick on board Joe’s boat. The only two moments of the film when we see any light in the face of Affleck.
This movie is fantastic. It really is. It was awful to watch. I walked out of the theater and thought, “that was amazing. I hope I don’t see it again for a long time.”