Manchester was an early dominator of awards season conversation. Casey Affleck’s (Out of the Furnace) performance is every bit as good as you’ve probably heard. It is subtle and intense, though I have to say it didn’t go very far as he is hemmed in by the story. Not Affleck’s fault, but it diminishes the award worthiness of the effort. Michelle Williams (Oz the Great and Powerful), for my money, deserves more of the attention for her supporting journey in this tale.
There are a number of other supporting performances that worked well. In particular C.J. Wilson (Demolition), though, again, his journey is rather narrow. Gretchen Mol (Mozart in the Jungle) might have had more impact, but the first half of her story is missing, much as it was for the family in the tale, but it means she had less to work with at the end. Matthew Broderick (Tower Heist), though, delivers a lot of impact in a very quiet role. Despite the importance of his role, I haven’t mentioned Lucas Hedges (Moonrise Kingdom) mainly because he felt more the MacGuffin in this movie rather than a character for me thanks to the script and directing.
I do have to provide a special mention for Anna Baryshnikov (Wiener-Dog). She was willing to be the front person for an awful garage band, and to do it with all the sincerity and earnestness such bands carry with them. Takes guts.
The much awarded writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me) obviously poured his soul into this story. It is a clear-eyed look at loss and survival on many levels. That doesn’t make it a good movie nor an entertaining one, but certainly I respect the intent and the focus. However, his sense of music is awful. The entire movie drips in background music that I thought/hoped had a purpose, but ultimately just ended up distracting and not evolving or adding much of anything for me.
Also, while Manchester is very real, and I can see the intended framing, I had no emotional response to the main tale whatsoever, though the subplot was quite effective (again, thanks to Williams). Even the physical metaphor in the penultimate and final scenes simply felt forced rather than important. For a plot of this nature, that means the film failed for me.
Personally, I’d suggest This is Where I Leave You, Missing You Already, or even Rudderless, despite any of their flaws, over this one for a look at the subject through another lens and a more satisfying completion. Let’s face it, the story is thread-bare as a plot device; you have to provide something truer or unexpected to capture the audience. Manchester didn’t quite get me on either aspect. Your reaction may differ, and I suspect it also depends on how your family dealt with such events, but I can only recommend it for the performances, not the story.