'Manchester by the Sea,' Starring Casey Affleck as a Man of Constant Sorrow, Is a Heartbreaking Masterpiece


Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea is possibly the saddest movie I’ve ever seen. I can’t think of any other movie, at any rate, that left me feeling vaguely weepy and in a need of a parish priest for a good 24 hours.

And yet what would a parish priest have accomplished? For that matter, what parish where?

The point is that the movie causes such a persistent trickle of sorrow, you wish you could talk it over with someone who’s made a career of offering consolation, even under circumstances in which no true consolation is to be had.

It is not to be had, not really, in Manchester by the Sea.

The movie, easily one of the best releases of the year, takes its place alongside Lonergan’s two prior movies, You Can Count on Me and Margaret, as some kind of indie-film masterpiece. The writing and the acting stick to an unpretentious, almost just-noodling-along naturalism while slowly, quietly charting out moral and emotional dilemmas — chiefly about responsibility, chiefly within the framework of a troubled family — so dense they would burst the spine of a proper literary American novel.

The movie should also win Casey Affleck the Oscar for best actor, assuming the world isn’t completely silly.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a Boston maintenance worker called back to his old town, Manchester by the Sea, after his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), drops dead of a heart attack. Joe’s will has named Lee as guardian to Patrick (Lucas Hedges), his teenage son. Yet Lee, who apparently hasn’t been exposed to Baby Boom, Annie and other cheering movies about reluctant parental figures who make good, doesn’t want the burden of looking after Patrick.

Lee is such a disgruntled little smudge of a man — a drinker, a brooder, a loner and a fighter — it’s hard to imagine that his brother would ever conceive of naming him as guardian if there were any other relative capable of taking on the job. (There’s a mother out there, somewhere, who was evidently a troubled woman and skipped out.)

Or, you wonder, is this Joe’s posthumous attempt to forge (by force) a reconnection to Lee? To somehow rein him back into Manchester by the Sea and into the family?

Eventually, gradually, Lonergan lets us know why Lee fled town, and the reason is so horrible — a terrible, existence-shattering thing — a reviewer has no choice but to treat it as spoiler material, in effect to tell people who haven’t seen the movie: “If you prefer to be completely devastated, you won’t want to know.”

On some level that does a disservice to Lonergan’s achievement — it feels like coddling, this urge to “protect” a story of such serious, severe dramatic weight, as if Manchester were a satisfyingly weepy melodrama that could be gauged by the amount of tissues dampened and crumpled.

Because Manchester is very much the first thing, and not at all the second.

Still: I won’t say anything further, except that once Lonergan has led you to this point, there’s nothing to do but be prepared to go further, and deeper, on a difficult journey. Lee, who would rather run back to his lair in Boston and continue bricking up the entrance, is thrust into situations that threaten to overwhelm him with memories.

His ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams), sobs and sobs in a heartbreaking attempt at reconciliation, finally unable to articulate her sense of loss as anything more than a suggestion that perhaps she and Lee should have lunch sometime. His nephew also sobs, also heartbreakingly, when looking for food in the freezer. He’s reminded that his father’s body has to remain at the morgue until spring. The New England ground is too cold and too hard for burial.

Writing this is making me sad all over again, so let’s end by saying that the acting throughout is exceptional, and that Affleck — as a man in permanent retreat from any sign of hope — is phenomenal: It’s a black hole of a performance, and its pull is overpowering.

In limited release Friday, R.

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