Manchester by the Sea Is Unrelenting in Its Bleakness

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Michelle Williams and Casey Affleck. Photo: Claire Folger/Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

The trailer for Kenneth Lonergan’s third feature, Manchester by the Sea, is unusually misrepresentative, although I sympathize with its studio — I can’t imagine how the film could be sold any other way. What’s suggested in those two and a half minutes is how a story like this is supposed to unfold, with a message that life is tragic but that family has the ability to save us — or at the very least offer a measure of consolation in an unforgiving universe. That’s how things worked, more or less, in Lonergan’s other movies, the superb You Can Count on Me and Margaret (a masterpiece in its three-plus-hours director’s cut). But next to this one, those are the films of a cockeyed optimist.  

In Manchester by the Sea, Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a stuporous Boston-area custodian with a tendency to lash out when he drinks, which is most of the time. Something’s eating him, but we don’t know what: The big reveal comes midway through. After a bad night, Lee finds out that his older brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler, seen in flashbacks), has died, and, after the funeral, that Joe has given him custody of his teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee doesn’t want custody. He doesn’t want to move back to Manchester-by-the-Sea, on Boston’s North Shore, where he grew up, and Patrick doesn’t want to leave his friends and his band. Also, Lee is persona non grata. People stare at him, whisper when he passes. He looked depressed in Boston, but in Manchester-by-the-Sea he looks as if he’s being eaten alive. But Patrick could be Lee’s last chance to escape the Slough of Despond.

As Lee moves through the misty seacoast town to Lesley Barber’s plaintive strings and chorales, Affleck proves he can convey suffering as well as any actor alive. His trebly voice is cracked with pain. He comes with his own chill fog. But that fogginess can also make his acting seem vague and generalized. His Lee is too far beyond reach to have stature — although that might, admittedly, be Lonergan’s intent. Not everyone can rise to the level of a tragic hero.

As Patrick, Hedges has a terrifically abrasive presence: He’s too emotionally defensive to accommodate himself to Lee’s hapless, halfhearted attempts at parenting. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife has an intensely moving scene on a staircase in the middle of town. She wants to call Lee back from where he is, even if it means opening herself up to the worst imaginable pain.

This bleak, bleak movie has only one major misstep. In a key scene, Lonergan wants to build to an operatic pitch (the finale of Margaret was at the Met), and he floods what are already ghastly images with music suitable for immolating oneself. The word lachrymose comes to mind. As a playwright, Lonergan can’t overwhelm our senses the way he can as a film director, and you can’t really blame him for wanting to see how far he can go. But you can advise him to lower the volume.

*This article appears in the November 14, 2016, issue of New York Magazine.