MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
MEviews’ Best Actor ~ Casey Affleck
Best Supporting Actor ~ Lucas Hedges
Best Original Screenplay ~ Kenneth Lonergan
Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
There are many ways and many things to kill off the heart. Some people go to WebMD and find morbid fascination in all of the diseases and conditions. (Some start to believe that are suffering from all of them. And those people’s time on the site should be limited.) On this side of the monitor though, heart die in fits and starts every day. Sometimes they weaken and die a bit more with each episode, and you never know when that last crucial piece will give up. Other times, such a huge area of the heart dies at once that it limps on, but is there really any way to repair it, to make it function again?
Joe (Kyle Chandler), in many ways, is the heart of the Chandler clan, the one the whole town loves, the one who watches out for everyone in the family. When Joe is gone the family is weakened in a way that will never be completely healed, but they will go on. They have to. Nothing short of a family tragedy would have brought Lee (Casey Affleck) back to Manchester by the Sea from his “home” in Boston. With every mile we see an already withdrawn man crawl further inside his own protective shell, trying desperately not to be back in his old hometown. Whatever needs to be done for his brother and his brother’s only child Lee will do, but his eyes are wild with needing to escape.
Perhaps there is one thing he just cannot do for his brother — not won’t — but genuinely cannot. Joe has entrusted him with the most precious thing he has: his son, Lee’s nephew Patrick. The decision to leave a crappy (literally) job in Boston and move back to Manchester by the Sea seems a simple one. Patrick is in high school there. They have family there. Joe provided for them in his will. It’s a beautiful area. Hell, one rich guy even bought a whole island so he would be by himself. But, you don’t need to buy an island to be alone: sometimes you just carry your shell on your back to keep everyone from getting in and from having to look out ever again.
The truth is Lee cannot come back. The largest part of his heart died there and people are trying to help repair some of the damage, but there is no way to tell if attempts will have any effect. Patrick is struggling without his father. Lee is struggling without a way back to anything approaching a life not crippled with so much pain and loneliness it seems like it will certainly crush him. What happened to kill off so much of his heart is a mystery that is only revealed to us in wisps of memories and flashbacks that we instinctively start to dread, based on comments made by some of the residents of the lovely town that has a less picturesque underbelly.
Oscar talk for “Manchester by the Sea” has been swirling since long before its release and with good reason. Casey Affleck in front of the camera is what his brother is behind it: a singular talent, an actor to be looked up to and studied, an actor to be recognised, an actor whose twisted expressions break your heart. Some surprising names among the producers knew what they were doing when they turned the writing and direction over to the brilliant Kenneth Lonergan. The Academy Awards has seen little enough justice these past years, but if it is paying attention at all, it must include Casey Affleck in the Best Actor Nominees. Lucas Hedges, as the conflicted and inwardly grieving nephew, is a master of shifting emotions and heartrending realisations; there surely is space for him in Best Supporting Actor. Which leaves us with Michelle Williams. Is there a part she has been in the last several years for which she did not deserve an Oscar nod?
Manchester by the Sea is the only imaginable setting for this movie. The magnificent homes that only 1% of the town’s population will ever see the inside of, making for the firm divide of the classes. The boats limping along in the harbour until the next major repair bill. And the haze of snow that pelts the actors unforgivingly in most scenes, to the piles of dirty, grey snow gathered of people’s lawn like secrets collecting in corners. Soaring vocals from the Messiah seem more to be sweeping the characters away than offering them comfort. It is only in glimpses of the past that we see times when life was better for the Chandler family and those around them. And worse.
Manchester by the Sea is a tough movie to watch, no doubt. It deals with death, self-indictment, forgiveness, and the inability to forgive, All while limping along on hearts with so much muscle dead, it would take a miracle to shock them back into beating again. Ask WebMD. You can try, but be aware that sometimes when you have no idea how deep the damage runs it may cease to beat at any second. And you are never prepared. But, that doesn’t mean we should turn away. In this case, we would be depriving ourselves of a masterpiece and a meditation on not just the big questions of life and death, but just what it means to survive and who among us actually does.