Thar be spoilers ahead…
Manchester by the Sea is a depressing movie. Even with the great dialogue and character performances, it leaves you wondering what just happened. In truth, not much did. Kenneth Lonergan’s script, from his play, won the 2017 Oscar for best original screenplay; he directed as well. But a story is supposed to show the protagonist (in this case Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler) learning something and moving forward in some kind of constructive way. This is not the case in Manchester by the Sea.
Casey Affleck’s restrained performance won him the best actor Oscar and it was well deserved. He plays a loner with repressed anger and grief issues. He’s a man who has never recovered from the loss of his children in a house fire he was responsible for. When his brother dies he returns to his home town and finds out he’s been made the guardian of his 16-year-old nephew. What ensues is 131 minutes of Affleck not coming to terms with his grief. Everyone is excellent in this film, from Kyle Chandler, who plays Lee’s brother in flashback, to Michelle Williams as Lee’s wife, who has moved on and had a new baby with another man, to Lucas Hedges as Patrick, the nephew, caught up in his own pain and self-absorbed lifestyle.
But by the end of the movie Lee admits that he can’t face living in Manchester anymore. The hurt is too great. There is no endearing moment or uplifting ending: Lee gives up and moves to Boston to work in another janitor job. This leaves the audience (well, me at least), feeling a bit miffed that Lee doesn’t have a proper character arc. Yes, I know real life doesn’t work out. But we go to see movies to be entertained. If I wanted to see a character not going anywhere I’d take a look at my own sad life. I want to see the protagonist make some sort of worthwhile change, no matter how minor. This movie doesn’t do that.
Manchester by the Sea has wonderful writing and performances. It does tend to drag a bit in places (as you would expect from a low key drama), and there is no real resolution to Lee’s issues. So if you’re looking for escapism, steer clear of this movie. But if you like to get a bit teary and enjoy great acting, Manchester by the Sea is for you.