Before writing this, I had a quick look to see if anyone else had had a similar reaction to Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea. As far as my Google search showed me, they haven’t, and I suspect my view will not be especially popular.
I was glad that in Mark Kermode’s review of this film he pointed out a flaw of Manchester By the Sea – that Michelle Williams’ character had been sidelined and that he wanted to understand her relationship with Casey Affleck’s character better. I would, however, like to expand on this point and go even further in my criticism of the film’s gender politics.
The events at the heart of the film are tragic and I understand that many critics and cinema audiences have praised Affleck for his ‘brilliant’ portrayal of a man who has experienced devastating and life-ruining losses. I was unable, however, to feel anything but irritation towards his character who is shown to be a selfish man who leaves his wife alone at home with their three kids to go out drinking on a boat all day and hosts loud and obnoxious male friends until 2 in the morning while his wife and children are attempting to sleep. This incredibly overused cliché of the husband who places homosocial bonding over his wife and kids was excruciating to watch and I saw nothing lovable about Affleck’s portrayal of an irresponsible husband and father that drinks too much. I am bored of this characterisation of men.
My brain was even more numbed by the parallel portrayal of wives as nagging nuisances. As Mark Kermode rightly pointed out, this was made even more irritating to me by the fact that the audience knew absolutely nothing about Michelle Williams’ character or the nature of their relationship – this made the scene towards the end between Michelle Williams’ and Casey Affleck’s characters all the more unrealistic and lacking in substance.
In contrast to Lee Chandler’s (Casey Affleck) relationship, his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) is shown to be in the reverse situation with his wife who is shown to be a drunk and possibly (it is not entirely clear) suffering from mental health problems. Again, we see zero background to this and know next to nothing about her character. She seems to have just been thrown in as a device to move the plot along (her behaviour meaning she is not fit to look after her child and therefore this brings Casey Affleck’s character into the picture).
Joe Chandler’s son (Lucas Hedges) also plays into boring tropes about teenage boys and their relationships with girls. Yes, of course, this is intended to be humorous but, as a twenty something year old woman, I long for more interesting depictions of young men and their attitude towards young women rather than the constant suggestion that all teenage boys are horny womanisers. Of course, his life has been plagued by grief and hardship, but his relationship to his female peers and discussions with his uncle about them left a bad taste in my mouth.
My eyes began to roll back into my head the minute Casey Affleck’s character is shown to deal with his grief through sudden, irrational acts of violence towards strangers. This is, again, falling back on boring gender stereotypes that depict brooding hyper-masculine characters who are unable to express themselves to their loved ones (particularly to the women in their lives). I was entirely sympathetic to what had happened to Lee Chandler’s character but extremely disappointed by the way in which his grief was played out and how the female characters in the film were completely secondary to the men – this was a hinderance to any enjoyment of the film as I felt unable to understand the circumstances of the relationships.
I am genuinely baffled by Casey Affleck’s Oscars win which has partly triggered me to write this review. Unfortunately, his win suggests to me that audiences still take little issue with tired gender stereotyping in a film that was long and tiresome and featured a now Oscar winning actor mired in accusations of sexism and sexual harassment. His character’s behaviour towards his wife felt wholly unpalatable when coupled with accusations that Casey Affleck fostered a culture of sexist abuse.