Every awards season we get a few cold dramas set in the north east of the States. Most of the time, in order to sustain interest, there’s crime, crooked cops, and a death. Here, there’s only the latter. Manchester By The Sea provides welcome respite from what I believe – save for a few exceptions – is an all but dry subgenre.
Another aspect of Manchester that I believe to be its saving grace is its relationships. Specifically, the relationship between Lee (Casey Affleck), a man stripped of all emotion for a reason left unknown until the film’s midpoint, and Lee’s nephew Patrick, a sixteen-year-old who’s just lost his father and who must face the prospect of living with his uncle Lee, which means uprooting his established life in favour of a one-room basement suite in a community building in a town where he knows no one.
Affleck’s acting here is on par with his Oscar-nominated turn in the underrated Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. In Jesse James he played Ford, a young man so in awe of James that it affects his mental health to the point that now semi-famously James turns to Ford and asks “Do you want to be like me or you want to be me?” Only a performance of skill could inspire a question like that and have asking it make perfect sense. Affleck applies the same level of nuance in Jesse James as he does her, but here he’s got less to work with. This performance is less verbal than physical. Lee hunches, avoids eye contact, and expresses his anger through drunken fistfights.
All of this behaviour makes sense halfway through the movie in a twist I won’t spoil, but suffice it to say Lee acts dead inside and out for good reason.
Although Manchester is a drama, the nephew Patrick provides the buoyancy necessary to avoid it becoming a drag. Both the men’s dry wit makes for many amusing conversations and situations that – despite all that comes before and after – cause genuine laughter.
Manchester By The Sea offers the best kind of payoffs; the ones that are so logical and natural they don’t feel like setups. It plods along like life in a sleepy coastal town, and you get the feeling it moves on after the film ends, too.