Death is one of the most prominent events depicted in art throughout mankind’s history. That makes a lot of sense considering humanity has always been fascinated and scared of death. It’s a subject matter that everyone has to deal with and yet very few, if any, people actually know how to deal with it. In film, we unfortunately, get melodramatic depictions of death all too often, and films end up saying very little about the subject matter. In Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan gives us a much more serious character study of how we deal with death. Unfortunately, the character study doesn’t get too far before we witness elements of melodrama and the film ends up being a noble, but disappointing final product.
Manchester by the Sea follows Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), as he lives a life in exile for reasons unknown in Boston. He is suddenly forced to go back to his hometown when his brother (Kyle Chandler) dies of a heart attack where he is told that he has been chosen as his nephew (Lucas Hedges)’s guardian. Now he must decide on whether he will take on this unwanted responsibility or go back to his life in exile.
Kenneth Lonergan has so far done a good job of making a film career out of screenplays that aren’t exactly memorable as a whole but do display a great balance of quippy dialogue and realism. That is on full display here as his dialogue seems to find the humor in what easily could have been a depressingly dramatic story. The problem is that Lonergan doesn’t really take this concept of death to any new areas. We are promised in the early goings a more realistic depiction of how we respond to death than the usual melodramatics that films go through when discussing this topic. Unfortunately, we do end up with a couple of plot twists that play against this goal. The end result is a hollow film that is otherwise well crafted.
Fortunately for Lonergan, a strong cast carries this film to the end. Casey Affleck is well cast as a purposefully monotone protagonist, and Kyle Chandler (quietly becoming one of the greatest actors working today), Lucas Hedges (quickly displays a natural ability for acting) and others make for one of the more memorable supporting casts of the year. The cast's one misstep is Michelle Williams, who is quite good until she gets to her big scene in the final act. Her acting in this scene comes across as way too over the top, which goes against the much more subtle acting that this film has been about for the rest of its runtime (the subtle chemistry between Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges may indeed be the heart of this film).
Manchester by the Sea is a well-crafted film that ultimately doesn’t explore the themes and ideas that it set out to do.