Perhaps as a token counterbalance to the crapulous events of 2016, the cinematic fates have gifted us Manchester by the Sea, a brilliant and intense portrait of quiet desperation. Even though it's been showered with award nominations, Manchester is a sort of anti-Oscar bait. It features no heroic soul overcoming a disability on the way to achieving greatness, nor does it irreverently capture an important moment in history. It exists in an HO-scale universe where life’s pressures lead ordinary folks into bad decisions with consequences too terrible to imagine, and lives too damaged to ever fully heal.
One such walking wounded is Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), caretaker of a crumbling apartment building in Quincy, Massachusetts. Chandler’s stoic routine of shoveling sidewalks and plunging toilets is shattered one day by shocking news from his hometown; news that will serve as a backstory catalyst and eventually topple the high emotional walls he has built to ward off society. Affleck can, to put it uncharitably, act rings around his older brother, and his loner turn here ranks among the great disaffecteds of cinema, approaching Travis Bickle territory. But Affleck’s Chandler has no designs on avenging the world’s wrongs. His energy - what little he has left - is consumed with sifting through the waste of a life in ruins.
While Chandler returns to the titular picture postcard town, blanketed by a snowfall that has caused life to go dormant, he finds he must settle affairs he wants no part of. For him, it is a town of shunning ghosts and shameful specters, its tidy clapboard houses and cobblestone streets the architecture of his undoing. Director Kenneth Lonergan and production designer Ruth De Jong flesh out every environ through a tense celebration of the stale and ordinary, their sets stuffed with the dingy bric-a-brac of what it means to be working class in 2016 America. The bread and circuses of beer and hockey no longer enthrall Affleck’s Chandler, but his fiery relationship with a bright teenager named Patrick (Lucas Hedges) may provide a glimmer of salvation. And with Manchester by the Sea, we’ll take any glimmer we can get.
Genre-wise, the film is a little tough categorize. It's a melodrama that never becomes melodramatic; a soap that never gets sudsy. Perhaps its most accurate description is a horror film, but the expected zombies, vampires and demons have been replaced by a coven of human weakness and fallibility. In Manchester by the Sea, even the kind and well intentioned can become monstrous, and no silver bullet or stake-through-the-heart can dispatch an accidental evil to its hellish rest. The perpetrators can only be forgiven. Even if they can't forgive themselves.