“I can’t beat it. I’m sorry” might be the single most resounding line from any film this year and it comes from Casey Affleck in the grief-grinding Manchester By the Sea, the indie breakout of the year that’s rightfully generating award season buzz for Affleck and the film from award winning director Kenneth Lonergan. The trailer accompanied with a soaring track by Matthew Perryman Jones alone has a more emotional punch than most films released this year.
The film has scored a 97% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which it mostly deserves. It’s not a film for everyone. It’s an undaunted look into the struggles of a grief-stricken average joe, who in the process of attempting to put his own life back together (or not together) must deal with the early but somewhat expected passing of his older, more responsible brother, and with all the tedious technicalities that come with having to put someone to rest (which happens to include coming to terms with learning he is now his teenage nephew’s new legal guardian).
These new responsibilities require Affleck’s Lee Chandler to grapple with moving back to his hometown, a place where everyone knows everyone and word travels fast. It’s also a place of unspeakable trauma for Lee (which is revealed in flashbacks edited directly into the linear story) and demons he learns he is severely ill-equipped to handle, which include coming face to face with his ex-wife (played by Michelle Williams who doesn’t do much beyond one big powerhouse scene). The character of Lee Chandler isn’t a stoic, fictional, dramatic hero looking for redemption or an escape. He’s just a man, severely broken, attempting to do his best and what’s right for his nephew (Lucas Hedges in a star-making role that also deserves supporting actor consideration). The film asks the audience to accept this fact and for the most part it pulls it off. It’s completely exhausting and authentic in how it examines death, grief and the realism of teenagers coming of age.
These are the gritty types of characters Casey Affleck (the younger and more talented brother of Ben) has thrived playing. Whether it’s the obsessive Robert Ford, Christian Bale’s lost veteran brother in Out of the Furnace or the amateur PI in Gone Baby Gone (directed again, by the less talented older brother) he nails it. But Manchester by the Sea is a benchmark for him and for any other performance by an actor this year (early buzz basically makes the Best Actor Oscar race between him and Denzel Washington for Fences, which has yet to be released)
And here is where things get tricky for Affleck who faced allegations of sexual misconduct from a producer on his pet project with Joaquin Phoenix, I’m Still Here. The allegations were described in several online sites, including the Daily Beast:
“In December 2008, Amanda White agreed to serve as a producer on an untitled documentary headed by Affleck and Flemmy Productions, which ultimately became I’m Still Here. She had a decade-long history of working with Affleck. Over the course of filming, White alleged in the complaint that she was repeatedly harassed. On one occasion, she claimed that Affleck ordered a crew member to take off his pants and show White his penis—even after she vehemently objected. She claimed that Affleck repeatedly referred to women as “cows,” and recounted his sexual exploits with reckless abandon. In her complaint, White recalled Affleck asking her “Isn’t it about time you get pregnant?” once he learned her age, and suggesting that she and a male crew member reproduce.”
White went on to file a multimillion dollar lawsuit against Affleck in 2010 and a settlement was reached. These stories, fair or unfair, are bound to rise up in the name of social justice as award season draws near and studios wage multi-million dollar PR wars of their own as they jockey for influence with Academy voters.
We saw a similar controversy this year with Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation, a hyped up but mostly so-so biopic of the Nat Turner slave rebellion which deserved a bigger budget and perhaps a more deft touch than what Parker could provide. He faced sexual assault allegations of his own, and several women’s rights groups openly protested the film outside theaters in Los Angeles and New York. However, unlike Affleck’s work in Manchester, I can’t see much coming for Birth of a Nation.
There is also controversial Oscar talk surrounding the career resurrection of Mel Gibson who could possibly garner another Best Director nomination for Hacksaw Ridge, the brutal portrayal of WWII American Army Medic Desmond T. Doss who won a Purple Heart despite serving as a conscientious objector (Doss is played by Andrew Garfield who will certainly also be in the conversation not just for this role but also for Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Silence). Mind you this is an industry that awarded Roman Polanski a Best Director statue in 2002. Whether or not the Academy chooses to recognize Gibson again this year will be very telling on the influence of social justice campaigns in media going forward.
The question becomes should an actor’s or an artist’s behavior away from the screen affect their chances for due recognition come awards season? Sonny Bunch from the Washington Post and Washington Free Beacon had a thorough examination of this question and it’s my opinion that it should not.
When we watch a film, or read a book or view a painting or experience an exhibit, we are judging the merits of the work and nothing more. If someone doesn’t want to pay their money to see Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea because they find the allegations against him unsettling, they are free not to do so without guilt or ridicule. The same freedom applies to anyone who does enter a theater. I myself was semi-familiar with the accusations against Affleck when I viewed Manchester. It didn’t affect my decision to see the film, nor does it affect my recommendation as one of the best of the year after learning more about them. If Affleck should bring home the Best Actor award, it will because his performance merits it and nothing more. In this case it’s completely earned, and well deserved.