Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.
Way back in February of 2010 I reviewed Chinatown. I love Chinatown; I think it’s the best movie of 1972. But reviewing it and praising it put me in a difficult situation as a new blogger. How fiercely do I praise a film made by someone who literally cannot return to this country because of statutory rape charges? Where is the separation of the man from his art? I had a similar problem with Birth of a Nation. Decades ago, the same problem came up when looking at the poetry of Ezra Pound, who was both a genius and a Nazi sympathizer. I find myself in the same position again with Manchester by the Sea and the performance of Casey Affleck.
Manchester by the Sea is the story of Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a handyman working in Boston. Lee seems to be an emotional cipher, someone who essentially has zero affect because of severe depression. This is increased when he learns that his brother Joe (played in flashbacks by Kyle Chandler) has died from the congestive heart failure that he was diagnosed with some time in the past. Through these flashbacks, we learn a few important things. First, Joe has a son named Patrick (Ben O’Brien as a child, Lucas Hedges as a teen). Joe’s wife Elise (Gretchen Mol) is an alcoholic who has left the family.
We also learn what is going on with Lee. Years earlier, he was married to Randi (Michelle Williams). One drunken evening, Lee went out for beer and through his own negligence, started a fire in the house that destroyed everything and killed his and Randi’s three children. Divorce soon followed and Lee left Manchester-by-the-Sea for Boston to get away from his ex-wife, his memories, and the stares of the people around him.
The problem here is that Joe has named Lee as the guardian of his son Patrick. Patrick naturally doesn’t want to move to Boston; his life is in Manchester-by-the-Sea. Lee doesn’t want to stay in town where he is a person of notoriety. He also doesn’t want Patrick to end up with Elise despite her cleaning up and getting sober because he doesn’t trust her. He also doesn’t really want to deal with Randi, who is remarried and has a child with her new husband.
More or less, Manchester by the Sea is the story of Lee figuring out that he still actually has some emotions buried down inside him and that the death of his brother, while more or less expected because of his illness, has brought all of these emotions to the surface. Suddenly, someone who had more or less not allowed himself to feel much of anything for years is flooded with a series of emotions and doesn’t really know how to deal with them.
And this is precisely where the dilemma comes in. Casey Affleck offers a performance here that is one of the best of this current decade. It’s a subtle skill, and one that Affleck has in spades: he is capable of allowing the audience to know what he is thinking and how he is feeling simply through nonverbal signals. There are few moments here where Lee actually talks about anything he is feeling, and yet through the entire film it is completely obvious to the audience precisely what is going on in the man’s head.
So what’s the problem? The problem is that Casey Affleck has been accused multiple times of sexual harassment, and if even half of the stories are true, his actions are truly reprehensible. I’m right back in the situation I was with Roman Polanksi. How much do I praise Affleck for a truly affecting and brilliant performance? How much do I condemn him for his real-world actions? Where do I separate the person from the performance? Do I run the risk of praising a brilliant performance offered by a terrible person? Do I denigrate a great performance because the performer himself is awful?
It’s an unfortunate thing. I feel damned if I do and damned if I don’t, because Affleck—who I’ve always thought was talented in front of the camera—is absolutely at the top of his game here.
Manchester by the Sea is a powerful film, made all the more powerful by its performances. Michelle Williams was nominated in a supporting role, and she’s good, but only memorable in one or two scenes. Lucas Hedges was nominated in a supporting role as well, and it’s an interesting performance. Patrick is also emotionally cold through most of the film until he has a complete breakdown. His relationship with Lee forms the center of the movie, and for the most part, Hedges is capable of standing toe-to-toe with Affleck.
Ultimately, Manchester by the Sea is not a pleasant film, but it is an important one, and one worth seeing. It’s not one I’ll want to watch again any time soon, though.
Why to watch Manchester by the Sea: Casey Affleck is unbelievable on screen.
Why not to watch: Casey Affleck off screen.