A lot of the critical dialogue surrounding Manchester by the Sea is about how soul-shatteringly sad the film is. For instance, warning audiences about the emotional heft of the film was actually the basis of Casey Affleck’s entire opening monologue when he recently hosted SNL. That reputation’s not exactly off-base. Manchester by the Sea is a dramatic study of a family in grief over two timelines, a portrait of loss & regret in the most realistic of terms. People get so unbearably sad in this film that their bodies shut down, their eyes go dead, and they can’t fathom a reason why they should live for another minute. The dirty secret about Manchester by the Sea, though, the part that most people aren’t addressing, is that despite its fearless gaze into the suicidal depths of grief & loss, it’s actually really damn funny. The immense pressure the film’s dramatic weight puts on its characters is constantly released by flippant, tough guy humor and you’re a lot more likely to laugh through a majority of the film than you are to cry. Just when you feel like you can easily laugh away the pain, though, the film’s emotional devastation crashes in on you in an insurmountable flood. It’s true to life in that way.
Casey Affleck headlines this small budget weepie as an underpaid handyman who has to step in to handle his brother’s estate after his sudden, but expected death. This responsibility includes caring for his teenage nephew, played by Lucas Hedges, something he’s not at all prepared for due to a past trauma that’s gradually revealed to the audience in flashbacks. What develops is two duelling timelines, both heartbreaking in their circumstances, but made amusing by the quiet, sullen humor of its tough guy protagonists who foolishly believe they’re stronger than their own emotions. Much like with the recent black comedy Joshy, Manchester by the Sea is largely about the way traditional masculinity doesn’t leave room for genuine expressions of emotional pain. Characters cover their feelings with tough-it-out jokes & good-natured ribbing until the arrival of someone actually willing to address the trauma head on, roles filled by the wonderfully talented Michelle Williams & Gretchen Mol, rushes the truth to the surface.
Casey Affleck’s lead performance is going to overshadow a lot of this film’s other details when it comes to its critical reputation. The quiet squeaks in his voice, the dead eyes of PTSD, the sudden bursts of explosive violence: his performance is well-deserving of the attention it’ll attract. This is a movie that’s non-imposing in its visual craft, washing everything in greys & seafoam greens so that the performances & the dialogue are more of the main attraction than the directorial work. Mol, Williams, and Hedges all make excellent use of each moment they’re afforded, but Affleck’s consistent hovering between looking like he might weep or throw a punch at any second is going to steal a lot of their thunder. That’s okay, though. What I was most impressed by in Manchester by the Sea wasn’t at all the heartbreaking drama Affleck skillfully conveys under the falsely calm surface of each scene. Rather, I was most struck by the way the film clashes a take-no-shit Boston bro attitude with devastating moments of emotional fragility to pull out something strikingly funny from the wreckage. The film works really well as a dramatic actors’ showcase, but it’s that act of black comedy alchemy that made it feel special to me.