In “Manchester by the Sea,” Casey Affleck stars as a Boston-area handyman who, after the death of his brother, played by Kyle Chandler, discovers he has been appointed legal guardian of the brother’s teenage son, played by Lucas Hedges. Affleck’s character rejects his brother’s wishes initially, which begins an examination of the character’s somber past. The film is written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, the filmmaker and playwright known for the films Margaret and You Can Count on Me.
From the film’s quiet opening scenes of drifting fishing boats and gliding seagulls, we are introduced to an overcast and dreamlike depiction of coastal Massachusetts. The chilly gray of the film not only serves as a foreshadowing of tone, but also as a symbol of the narrative’s profound simplicity and neutrality. Lonergan uses several shots of New England homes, from inside moving cars to static compositions from neighborhood sidewalks, as a constant reminder that the film is simply about life and about people; anymore importance or significance is up to the audience.
The look of the film is aided by its soundtrack of known and unknown songs. The music is layered throughout and helps to do both narrative work and character development. Lonergan implements a mixture of 50’s and 60’s rock hits as well as orchestral adagios, which give the story a sense of timelessness. It also helps to add grandeur to scenes of familiar humanity.
Much of the film is saddled with the weight of tragedy, and that theme persists throughout the story. The screenplay offers an almost Shakespearean investigation into human emotions. We explore tragedy and guilt, forgiveness and redemption. But what is overwhelming is the idea of loss. Specifically, Affleck’s character isn’t sure what to do with it.
When someone close to you passes, how do you move on? When is it appropriate to move on? Can you ever fully? All of these questions are explored as the character navigates the complexities of his past and present.
Affleck has, at this point in time, won Best Actor at the 2017 Golden Globes. In the lead-up to the Academy Awards, this is always a positive and telling sign as to what will happen with the Oscars. It would come as no surprise if Affleck takes home the golden statue as he plays the leading role with depth, reservation, and range. Although there are a couple of moments of intensive outbursts, the role is not grand-standing like other Oscar performances. Affleck is calmly nuanced, invitingly enigmatic, and sympathetically relatable.
“Manchester by the Sea” has garnered much acclaim since its release, and deservedly so, but a few critics have even hailed it as a “masterpiece.” I’m not sure if that’s genuine praise or desperate hyperbole.
The film is good, moving and impactful, thanks to Lonergan’s vision and to the actors’ abilities, and that should be celebrated. But, regardless of the questionable state of American movies, good is not always great. The film connects because it isn’t bogged down by comic book franchise expectation or a liberally-minded, ideological message. It’s a story about people. Real, honest, no-hero-no-villain people.