This might be the film for which Casey Affleck gets an Oscar for best actor.
I admit I never really thought I’d type those words. Nothing against the younger Affleck, he’s certainly been in his fair share of remarkable films. Still, Manchester by the Sea seems to be a perfect storm for the performer – it’s got a pinch of mental illness, a load of grief, some sensitivity for others, and a dry, drawling take on New English masculinity.
The story unfolds gradually and with deliberate coyness, and much of its effect comes from knowing little about what’s haunting Affleck’s character. The film’s greatest strength may come from its intricate editing schema, where we bounce back and forth, often within one scene, to buttress two time lines together to craft an even richer emotional payoff.
Director Kenneth Lonergan is probably most famous for his unrelenting drive to maintain control of his pictures, resulting in years-long delays for some of his other projects. I can’t speak to how challenging this film was to get into shape, but it certainly appears to be uncompromising. The pace of the work is calm and deliberate, the performances raw and compelling, and the general milieu perfect for this kind of maritime melodrama.
Even the work with an adolescent doesn’t come across as cloying, thanks in part to Lucas Hedges’ refusal to come across as precocious or stagey. Other performers, from Michele Williams to Kyle Chandler, Tate Donovan and Gretchen Mol, inhabit the world effectively.
Yet it’s on Affleck’s shoulders the film rests, and if he came across as moody and boorish rather than sympathetic the whole thing would collapse. Instead, with a role of great subtlety and dexterity, we get glimpses of his rage and kindness in equal measure, a perfectly attenuated take that is perhaps for the first time a star-making showcase for his gifts.
As the drama unfolds we’re thrown through the regular rigmaroles of tragedy and redemption, yet somehow within this setting these elements take on near biblical proportions. The archetypical struggles feel deeper and more resonant, as if the salty air of the coast somehow befits odes of this type more than, say, some Midwest suburban landscape. The waters make the area feel more ancient than it is, thus the struggles that are existential in scope feel more literary than lunacy.
When all is said and done Manchester by the Sea proves to be an extremely engaging drama with terrific performances shaped by strong direction. One of the few films that’s likely to get a big push out of its indie debut at Sundance, expect this film to be much talked about at awards time. It’s a strong enough film to justify the hype, and with Affleck’s prime performance it’s a film to be applauded.
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