Tonight is the big night, and first thing come morning we will know which film can call itself the past year's Best Picture. This past week, we've watched and reviewed most of the nominees, but we saved the best for last. First up, Kenneth Lonergan's dreary magnum opus, Manchester by the Sea.
Manchester by the Sea follows Lee Chandler, an apathetic Bostonian janitor, who is pulled back into a past he'd rather forget when he learns of the death of his older brother, and his subsequent guardianship over his teenage nephew. Grudgingly, Lee takes up the burden of handling both his and the youngster's grief, and their difficulty expressing their true feelings to those around them.
The film, while in a sense a family drama, eschews the grand and at times melodramatic emotions normally characteristic of the genre, instead sketching a nuanced, deep yet somewhat understated psychology, granting the characters a complexity that reaches over into raw realism, a feat rarely seen in film nowadays.
Casey Affleck plays the role of his life in Lee, his trademark slurring voice and passive demeanor hiding an immense pain and remorse, which makes his sudden bursts of aggression all the more poignant and understandable. A well-earned Oscar would surely beckon, were it not for the controversy surrounding him at the moment.
The supporting cast gives their all as well, and both Lucas Hedges and Michelle Williams, Lee's nephew and ex-wife respectively, distinguish themselves as actors with serious dramatic chops, playing off of Affleck's presence excellently, without disappearing too much in the shadows.
Much of their performances' quality lies in the writing provided, which is of the highest order. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, normally a playwright, said the stage goodbye for this project, and his commitment and passion for the story, as well as his experience with writing for theatre, show throughout, with efficient and natural use of dialogue, which only further enhances the film's already unrivaled realism.
The general sense of melancholy permeating the characters and narrative is further emphasized by the setting, the eponymous town of Manchester-by-the-Sea, seemingly perpetually freezing. Its quiet harbor and equally lonesome streets produce beautiful visuals, which, like everything else in this film, excels in realism and understatement.
Manchester by the Sea is one of those rare films that come around once every few years, in which all the parts form a cohesive, thematically sound whole, which through impeccable performances, excellent writing and understated visuals, is delivered to its audience as clear as reality, and packs as heavy a punch as when you'd be standing there yourself. A marvelous piece of film-making, and a prime example of what cinema can and should produce.