Manchester by the Sea.

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Manchester by the Sea is a devastating portrayal of the aftermath of grief that can’t just go away with time, the lengths to which people will go to avoid it, and the inevitability of returning to it. Casey Affleck delivers a performance for the ages here, and Michelle Williams is brilliant in a secondary role that doesn’t give her a ton of screen time. And despite the film’s core subject matter, there’s a lot of humor in it, some silly, some dry, but more than enough to keep you from turning away from the film’s unrelenting sorrow.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler, whom we meet first in his job in Quincy (correctly pronounced “quinzy”), Massachusetts, a working-class suburb just south of Boston, as a janitor and handyman for several buildings, where he’s put upon by numerous tenants and displays a sort of heroic stoicism in the face of condescension and stupidity. He gets a surprise phone call while shoveling snow and de-icing a sidewalk, a regular pastime for Boston-area residents, to learn his brother, Joe, has been hospitalized; by the time he arrives, his brother has died of a heart attack, which we find out was the result of congestive heart failure that hit Joe at a very young age. Lee finds out that Joe has appointed him guardian of Joe’s 16-year-old son, Patrick, with the assumption that Lee would take over Joe’s house in Manchester-by-the-Sea and raise Patrick to adulthood, but this revelation – Lee had no idea that this was in Joe’s will – reopens a torrent of grief related to another, earlier tragedy for which Lee blames himself and led to his flight to the city.

This is a Casey Affleck solo album, and he delivers a virtuoso performance that never really answers whether Lee is truly a stoic or merely suffering so much internal pain that he’s become numb on the outside. Affleck has a hundred opportunities to slip outside of that hard exterior and lose the character, and never blinks. There’s pain in his eyes, especially in the scene where we see him explaining the earlier tragedy to police, and a tension in his jaw that lasts throughout the film, so that when he turns down even simple gestures of kindness from others, those characters could see him as impolite or morose and never tell which. The script makes excellent use of silences throughout the film, but those are a key component of Lee’s conversations with just about everyone around him, even in response to mundane questions, as if wondering what kind of day he’s having is just too painful to contemplate.

The one character with whom Lee has any reduction in his guard is Patrick, played by Lucas Hedges, who has already won several awards for the best performance by a young actor in a film this year. We see through flashbacks that Lee was close to Patrick when the latter was still young, before Lee’s own tragedy and the departure of Patrick’s alcoholic mother from his life, but Lee’s ability to connect with Patrick is hampered by absence and time, and the spectre of that central tragedy in Lee’s past. Hedges is at his best when balancing the facade of the insouciant teenager, balancing two girlfriends who don’t know about each other, against his own grief at losing his father and one particular detail that encapsulates his grief.

Williams isn’t on screen much as Lee’s ex-wife Randi, although her character is central to the backstory and she delivers a monologue near the very end of the film (the one you see in the trailer and commercials) where she speaks through wracking sobs that sound unbelievably real. Her accent, like most of those other than Affleck’s, is over the top, but like Affleck she reflects intense pain through her eyes and through tightly drawn lips in her first reappearance at the funeral service, only to let the grief out in a barrage of tears in that (Oscar nomination clip?) scene. The change in her appearance from the past to the present is also significant and well-executed; in the present day, she’s remarried into at least some more money, with an expensive haircut and clothes and more makeup, but the makeover turns her into someone who’s overcompensating to forget her past, and perhaps unsure of how to reflect a rise in status in her looks.

There are little details around the edges of the film that could have been better, including a few scenes that director Kenneth Lonergan might have cut, such as the thirty-second discussion over the “bleeper” (the garage-door opener) that served no purpose other than to have Affleck and Hedges say that word with their Massachusetts accents. The police-station scene where Affleck goes over the earlier tragedy is marred by the score, which is too loud to begin with and didn’t need to be in that scene at all; the score as a whole detracts from the movie, as it was just too noticeable in a film that needs to be quiet. Also, when Patrick eats at the house of one of his girlfriends, he refers to a dish as “homemade carbonara” when it is clearly a red sauce, and that sort of mistake is just unforgiveable.

Affleck seems like a lock for a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actor, and I’m not sure how anyone could deliver a better performance than this. I’ve mentioned the sexual harassment lawsuits against him in a recent links post, which could sink his support among Oscar voters, but on the merits alone he’s more than deserving, with a Golden Globe nomination already and several wins from local film critics’ associations. I imagine it’ll get nods for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, with Williams possibly grabbing one for Best Supporting Actress, although from reading expert views I get the sense like Viola Davis has that one sealed up for Fences. I don’t think it will beat Moonlight, but I think it’s actually a better film with a stronger script; both films use silence heavily to express sorrow, grief, or doubt, but Manchester does it more effectively.


  1. Don’t you feel hypocritical with your (justified) stance on domestic abuse and then fawning over Affleck who is accused of some really bad things.

  2. You mentioned on one of your Insider articles that you could not be a fan of the Yankees now that they’ve re-signed Chapman and you would have resigned from your job if an organization you worked for made a similar decision. What is the difference between enjoying the Yankees (w/ Chapman) and enjoying this film (w/ Affleck)?

    • Read the Directions

      I must have missed where Keith said anything about refusing to watch Chapman pitch or not being able to appreciate his talent when he’s on the field. Did he say either of those things?

      I also don’t get this need to play “gotcha,” especially when it requires just making shit up or conveniently misrepresenting prior comments and arguments.

    • Thank you, Rtd.

      I also don’t get this need to play “gotcha,”

      I don’t either, and as a general rule, if your instinct here is to call me a hypocrite, please save us both the trouble and don’t do it. I think people who throw that word around don’t realize how insulting it is to the target.

    • I for sure didn’t call Keith a hypocrite. I don’t think he is. To clarify, I asked him to weigh in on the moral/ethical/philosophical difference between enjoying a baseball team starring a compromised player and enjoying a movie starring a compromised actor.

    • I answered this more in chat with another person who played the “gotcha” game, although here you get the analogy right: Watching Affleck in a movie is akin to watching Chapman on the field. You could absolutely choose not to see this movie because of Affleck’s past; I wouldn’t see Cafe Society given Woody Allen’s probable history of child abuse. I went to see it because I’m trying to see the key Oscar contenders so that I can have a real conversation with readers when those nominations come out and on Oscar night; I’m glad I did, both because the movie is so good and because Affleck appears to be one of the two favorites (with Denzel, whom someone else mentioned).

      I loathe Aroldis for what he probably did last summer and for other stuff that hasn’t become public, but I can’t deny that he’s a very effective pitcher, and if I could separate the man from the arm, so to speak, I’d find him tremendously fun to watch. I can’t split the two in my mind. It was easier for me to discard the allegations against Affleck while watching the film because he’s literally pretending to be someone else on the screen. I was watching this character named Lee Chandler, a man in unbelievable and incurable emotional pain, who concedes at the end that he “can’t beat it.” The power of the performance is such that I forgot about the actor until after the movie was over.

    • As a Yankee fan who struggles with the Chapman signing, and also someone who respects Keith for his moral philosophy, I was hoping to continue the discussion outside of the baseball realm.

    • Thanks for taking the time to answer, Keith. I didn’t think you were being duplicitous, and I was initially discouraged when I didn’t get the benefit of the doubt because there are very few sports forums where questions like these would be welcomed, but I know this is one. We’re not all trolls! Just most of us.

    • Unfortunately, you asked a question some others asked with less friendly intent. I fully admit this is where I struggle – I see three people ask a similar question, two are being jerks, I assume all three are. Thank you for giving me a moment to gather myself and answer you fairly. I’m human too.

  3. My dad and I went to see this last weekend. At times I wanted to scream at the two of them to start talking to each other about the earlier tragedy, especially after Patrick looked at the pictures. But I realized that this movie is more about what is not said as opposed to what is said. Lee’s simple “I can’t beat it” really ends up saying it all, anyway.

    I admit the story of Affleck’s alleged harassment bothers me a lot. I became a big fan of his after Gone Baby Gone and especially The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, so it’s distressing to hear that he’s been accused of such things.

    That being said, this was easily one of the two best movies I’ve seen so far this year, and Affleck would still be very deserving of the Academy Award. We’ll just have to see if the stories do affect him. (Considering his brother and close friend, I’m guessing they won’t.)

  4. I think you nailed what I was feeling about the score. I think it’s actually a great score (I’ve gone back and listened to it), but it just doesn’t match the film at all. It’s extremely dramatic and in-your-face, while the film feels very understated & true-to-life. It constantly, unnecessarily reminds you how terrible everyone’s situation is. Thanks for writing – always enjoy the film reviews.

    • It constantly, unnecessarily reminds you how terrible everyone’s situation is.

      Yes! Especially in the police station. It was like we were slipping into a Law and Order scene, and without that music it would still have been powerful.

  5. I agree this is a better movie than Moonlight. I do think that Affleck’s performance can be viewed as analogous to Chapman’s on the mound. That they are both great at what they do makes praise of them discomfiting, given their respective histories. Just my take.

    (For the record, am a big fan of this site and your writing in general — not playing “gotcha”.)

  6. I loved this movie….as far as an award for Affleck Denzel looks just amazing in the trailers for fences don’t you think?

  7. As a Yankee fan who struggles with the Chapman signing, and also someone who respects Keith for his moral philosophy, I was hoping to continue the discussion outside of the baseball realm.

  8. One other thing I did think the scene with the garage opener is important. It shows that Lee has been out of Patrick’s life for so long he litterally has to look to Patrick even to do something as simple as opening the door. Also this is the beginning of things that Patrick just doesn’t get about Lee.

  9. Moonlight switched to Adapted so Manchester has clear path to win Original Screenplay.