Manchester by the Sea follows Lee Chandler [Casey Affleck] for the few months after his older brother’s death, explaining the way he handles things via flashbacks to an earlier difficult time in his life. It’s a movie that’s light on plot per se, being more of a meditation on loss and how life goes on afterwards.
It’s an assured piece of filmmaking that deftly handles long single takes and a low-key emotionally-real style of performance. The sense of realism and tragedy is expertly heightened by the inclusion of minor absurdities of the kind I can certainly recall experiencing at times of heightened emotion. The entire cast work hard, delivering pitch-perfect deliveries, including all the human frailties of real speech. As a result of all this, I felt myself tearing up a few times, completely empathetic with the plight of Lee.
All of these excellent qualities are double-edged at best. The assurance to follow long takes also carries the attitude of self-indulgence: it’s a film that takes a damned long time to do what it’s doing, so that the eventual emotional pay-off often feels like too little too late to compensate for some fairly tedious stretches. I checked my watch 4 times during the film, wondering how much longer it could really go; I was surprised and disheartened at the first time-check that barely 45 minutes had passed. More difficult is it’s pigeon-holing of all the female characters. None of them show the slightest agency and the film spends zero time exploring any of their emotional responses, so that almost half the cast seem to function purely as foils for masculine emotion. As a consequence the film fails the Bechdel test.
The rapturous critical response to this film is somewhat surprising to me. I’ve seen great films that don’t do a lot on the surface, but this film is just too long, too self-indulgent, and while Chandler’s emotional devastation is explained, we never see behind his stoic mask, making up a central character I could pity but not like. I wouldn’t have put this film in for any awards of any kind – it’s a top-end Hallmark made-for-TV outing that pulls out three or four show-stopping emotional body-blows amidst an ocean of tedium.