Why Manchester By the Sea should win the best picture Oscar
Manchester By the Sea, it must be said, is a tough sell. Its premise – man returns home to look after his dead brother’s son – doesn’t exactly scream good times. Its poster, full of muted blues and haunted expressions, further cements that suggestion. It’s written and directed by a man, Kenneth Lonergan, whose last film, Margaret, was a sprawling and hugely divisive work that wallowed in development hell for half a decade and then flopped badly when it eventually limped into cinemas. Even the many rave reviews afforded to the film sound like backhanded compliments, containing adjectives likely to make most cinemagoers run a mile: heartbreaking, raw, devastating.
And, in truth, Manchester By the Sea does conform to those descriptions. It is achingly raw and heartbreaking, and it will most likely devastate you. If that sounds like something you’d rather not experience, then it’s probably best to turn away now. But if you are able to stomach it, this film proves immensely rewarding.
Casey Affleck stars as Lee, a withdrawn handyman who reluctantly returns to his Massachusetts home town to take care of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), after the boy’s father (Kyle Chandler, seen only in flashback) dies suddenly. It’s a task fraught with jeopardy: not only does he have to deal with the challenges of caring for an emotionally raw teenage boy, but returning home means reckoning with the traumatic incident that forced him to leave in the first place. Even now, a month after release, it would be unfair to disclose the event that transformed Lee into the defeated figure he now is, but suffice it to say that when that truth is divulged, it explains his outlook with heartbreaking clarity. It’s a moment deserving of empathy, yet utterly unknowable.
Make no mistake, this is at times crushingly heavy subject matter. Yet Manchester By the Sea never feels maudlin or melodramatic. Lonergan constructs a jigsaw puzzle of a film, whose fragmented, elliptical flashbacks draw us into Lee’s world slowly and carefully. It means that the moments of emotion, when they come, act as controlled explosions, all the more affecting for their economy.
Remarkably, given the subject matter, Manchester By the Sea is frequently funny. It’s funny in the way that real life is funny, not with a series of sculpted one-liners, but with sideways looks and coughs and interruptions and all the strange ways real people make each other laugh. Many of its biggest laughs are entirely wordless, tiny gestures, nods and looks between Lee and Patrick that convey more than an artful bon mot ever could. Their relationship contributes to a world that feels authentic and lived-in.
At the centre of this world is Affleck. His performance is notable for what it doesn’t do: there’s no wailing or lamentation, no grand, revealing monologues. Instead, everything is internalised and in miniature. Lee’s grief, rage and self-loathing are so acute that all he can do is swallow them back down, subdue them. Only once does it bubble to the surface, in a chance meeting with his ex-wife (Michelle Williams, making the most of her limited screen time) that shifts from cordial to traumatic. It’s a horribly watchable moment, but Affleck never oversells it. As with the rest of the film, it’s a remarkably restrained performance.
Whether it’s a performance that deserves to be rewarded at the Oscars, given what has been alleged about Affleck’s past behaviour, has been subject to much debate. Around the time of Manchester By the Sea’s release details of two lawsuits filed against Affleck in 2010 by women working on I’m Still Here resurfaced, accusing him of sexual harassment and verbal abuse. The suits were settled out of court, though that hasn’t prevented people comparing it to the controversy that torpedoed Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation.
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Michelle Williams on Manchester by the Sea: ‘Closure only comes when we die’ – video
It is worth noting that the circumstances of Parker and Affleck’s alleged improprieties are significantly different (David Sims of the Atlantic explains why very well here), but both raise the thorny issue of whether we should separate art from the artist. Should Affleck’s alleged actions discount Manchester By the Sea from the prize circuit? By rewarding the work are we tacitly excusing his behaviour? These are knotty questions unlikely to offer easy, straightforward answers.
That seems strangely in keeping with Manchester By the Sea, a film that resists tidy resolutions or simplistic life lessons. Instead, it offers up life as it truly is: messy, maddening, full of regrets and words left unsaid. At a time when escapism seems like the default mode, it refuses to look away. For that reason, and so many others, it would be a deserving best picture winner.