As much as I enjoy award season, I must admit that there are some downsides. Every so often the Academy heaps nominations on a truly boring film, one so obtuse, dull, or artsy that all its entertainment value is leached out of it. Manchester by the Sea falls right into this category. Tonally and visually bleak throughout, Manchester by the Sea is a slow moving slog of a film full of miserable performances that were all somehow nominated for Oscars. It briefly flares to life in the 2nd and 3rd acts, but make no mistake – this film is a flat line from start to finish, and it will have you begging for death just to escape the monotony.
Casey Affleck stars as Lee Chandler, a reserved, emotionally distant handyman who is thrust into guardianship of his 16 year old nephew, Kyle Chandler (Lucas Hedges) after his older brother dies of congestive heart failure. Forced back into his hometown of Manchester, a place where his ex-wife, Randi (Michele Williams) still lives, Lee must navigate the logistical issues of his brother’s final arrangements, a process which recalls earlier familial tragedy.
Casey Affleck’s Oscar nominated performance as Lee Chandler can at best be described as “subtle”, and at worst as “lifeless”. He turns nearly every scene in the movie into a monotonous mumblefest. Lee is socially awkward and emotionally repressed – a broken man unable to cope with the trauma in his past. Affleck expresses this inner turmoil by not emoting. Aside from periodic outbursts of drunken violence, our lead character is as bland and cold as the film’s frozen scenery and grey skies. He is pitiable, but not remotely likable. Most egregious of all, Lee lacks a compelling character arc. After two hours of watching him mope and cope, we fade to black with him in more or less the same emotional state as he was at the opening, leaving us scratching our heads and wondering what the point of it all was.
Even more bamboozling is the nomination of Lucas Hedges. Hedges plays Kyle Chandler, Lee’s nephew and walking teenage boy stereotype. His relationship with Lee is strained (just as all Lee’s relationships are strained), and much of the interpersonal drama in the film is drawn from Kyle’s teenage objections to Lee’s surrogate parenting style. Kyle doesn’t want to move in with Lee now that his father is dead. He doesn’t want to leave his school – all his friends are there; he’s on the hockey team; he’s in a garage band; and he has two girls he’s screwing. Hedges portrays the angst with satisfactory petulance, but his delivery of his lines is every bit as dull as Affleck’s. A few laughs are painfully extracted from Lee’s social ineptitude getting in the way of Kyle’s sexual conquests, but having to spend most of the film watching two miserable characters murmur back and forth to each other saps the life out of the experience.
The film’s final acting nomination goes to Michele Williams for her portrayal of Lee’s ex-wife Randi. Of the three, she comes the closest to deserving the nomination, as one of the film’s two heartbeats does belong to her. She has an emotionally charged confrontation with Lee in the 3rd act of the film, and, in light of how little screen time she has, it is surely for this moment alone that she was nominated. As engaging as this brief scene is, overall it is a flash in the pan – a scene that briefly grabs our attention, but is soon forgotten by audience and film alike when both slip back into their respective comas five minutes later.
Writer and director Kenneth Lonergan is also nominated for both of his contributions to the film, and it will be a tragedy of he wins either. The imagery is as grey as the tone, the overwhelming majority of the dialogue is utterly banal, and the film is packed with jarring, unmotivated flashbacks that disrupt the pace and confuse the audience. Manchester by the Sea is a boring, disappointing, dull, grey mess of a film and I hope it gets flattened at this year’s Oscars.