Manchester by the Sea is sitting at 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and is expected to garner several Academy Awards nominations. It’s not a bad movie, but it certainly doesn’t deserve that level of recognition.
The film follows Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a janitor locked in a self-destructive spiral responsible for several apartment buildings in Quincy, Massachusetts. Chandler’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has a heart attack and dies, leaving Lee legally responsible for his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and all their investments in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts. This is a huge problem for Lee Chandler, for reasons that would spoil the movie to get into because of a combination of poor marketing and a structural weakness within the film itself. Additionally, the film jumps back and forth in time between the present day and Chandler’s marriage to Randi (Michelle Williams).
I’ve got a weak spot for broken timelines, but writer/director Kenneth Lonnergan writes Manchester by the Sea into a bit of a hole. The central conflict is Lee Chandler’s reluctance to take guardianship of his nephew, but it takes so long to reveal why he’s reluctant that the movie essentially wastes 45 minutes before showing the audience what’s really going on.
This would be OK if it were well shot or had great characters who compel the audience to care about them, but it doesn’t. Manchester by the Sea is one of the most minimalist films I have ever seen. It is completely reliant on the story for its appeal, the same story that it doesn’t even begin to tell until well into its runtime.
There are several ways this manifests in the filmmaking, but the biggest thing to notice is the camera in Manchester by the Sea is completely static. It’s one of the only things that stands out about the movie. I think there were about three shots with camera movement the entire film. Many of the shots are 20-30 seconds long as well, meaning the editing does nothing to shape the movie either. Film is a visual medium, and this film does almost nothing to tell its story visually or use the tools available to it as a movie in any way. By design, it’s reliant entirely on its actors to tell the story, who — well, we’ll talk about them in a minute.
The only flourish the film has is its music, which is poorly conceived. At several of the film’s most dramatic points, the wistful “indie movie” piano music comes in to make you wonder whether or not the whole thing is meant in jest.
Expanding to 1,208 theaters the same weekend La La Land expanded to 200, Manchester by the Sea suffers mightily by comparison. It’s not a bad movie, it’s not like it was clearly re-edited for maximum fan service or had cartoon faces of dead actors laid over another actor’s face, it just doesn’t add anything to its story. And when you’re matched up against something ambitious like La La Land with pretty colors and lighting cues and complicated shots and music routines and actors who are actually doing things, it’s hard to stand out.
Not only does Manchester by the Sea take a beating artistically, it also got pushed around at the box office, where it out-grossed La La Land by just $136,338 despite playing in 1,008 extra theaters. Averaged out, Manchester brought in $3,441 per theater, while La La drew $20,100. The people demand musicals!
It’s a coincidence that they expanded the same weekend, but this rivalry is going to continue all the way to the Academy Awards, where La La Land and Manchester by the Sea are favorites in several major categories. It reminds me a lot of the dynamic between 2014’s Oscar favorites, Birdman and Boyhood. One was a peerless technical achievement that stands as a monument to what film is capable of as a storytelling medium, and the other made people feel warm and fuzzy inside because the little boy grew up.
Similar to Boyhood — I’m painting with broad strokes here, Boyhood had much more going for it than this as a film — Manchester by the Sea’s critical acclaim has much more to do with it emotionally resonating with a lot of viewers than its actual quality as a film, and that’s not a small feat. I’m kind of an unfeeling psychotic asshole, so movies in which the appeal is entirely emotional don’t really work on me, your mileage may vary. But it’s plain to see that a lot of the movie’s accolades are a result of it interacting with the viewers’ own emotions, not a result of the movie itself being all that great.
Nowhere is this dynamic more apparent than the praise that’s being specifically garnered by the film’s performances. Both gifted and burdened with completely static shots that last several seconds each, Affleck, Williams and Hedges don’t have much to offer. They each get a crying scene because they’re sad, but most of the acting in this movie is imagined by the audience. When you give someone like Anthony Hopkins several seconds of silence to work with, he takes the opportunity to add several layers of depth to the scene and his character. The players in Manchester by the Sea just sort of stand there and reap the benefits of the Kuleshov Effect.
To the tune of several expected Oscar nominations.
Leopold Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist, syndicated columnist at the Lewisville Texan Journal and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.