Why ‘Manchester by the Sea’ Gets Male Grief Wrong

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, from left, Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, 2016. ph: Claire Folger. © Roadside Attractions / courtesy Everett Collection

The new film Manchester by the Sea is this year’s critical darling. Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret) the film is, according to critics , “an achingly graceful, heartfelt, working-class story about loss, grief, and family obligations” as well as “a deeply affecting chamber piece that features an outstanding performance by Casey Affleck.”

It’s also an overrated film that gets male grief wrong. (Spoiler alert: I’m going to be revealing key plot points and final scenes).

In Manchester by the Sea, Affleck (Gone Baby Gone, Ocean’s Eleven) plays Lee Chandler, a Boston janitor and apartment building superintendent who is forced by his brother’s death to return to his North Shore hometown. Lee is suffering deeply from grief, the result of losing two children in a house fire that he is responsible for causing. When Lee’s brother Joe dies in his early forties and leaves behind a teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Lee suddenly finds himself the boy’s guardian.

Manchester by the Sea suffers from what I call Forrest Gump Syndrome. It’s a film where the lead character never changes, leading to narrative inertia. Lee Chandler is a zombie, a man so debilitated by sorrow and regret that he can’t even sustain a basic conversation. For the first thirty minutes or so of the film, this works. Affleck shuffles around, mumbling through repair jobs and getting into bar fights, which somehow manage to seem languid. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes captures the duality of New England in winter, a place both gray and depressing yet also coldly beautiful. But then it’s an hour into the film and Lee’s mood hasn’t changed. At all.

“No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is of being afraid.” That’s how C.S. Lewis opens his book, A Grief Observed, and it’s what’s missing from Manchester by the Sea. Grief can not only make someone sullen and sluggish, but also anxious and aggressive. It can be a difficult feeling to conquer, especially for men, who are less verbal than women. This aspect of men’s emotional lives was expertly dramatized in Good Will Hunting, another, superior film about a young man in Boston processing grief. Although that film was also set among members of the Boston Irish working class, its script revealed its characters to be wounded yet able to articulate their anger. Therapist Sean Maguire, so memorably played by Robin Williams, provided the story arc of the film, a slow unfolding of the psyche of Will Hunting (Matt Damon). In the unforgettable climax of the movie, Will, a victim of abuse, is confronted with a fierce truth: “It’s not your fault.” Finally, the wall of fear, anger, and pain breaks, and Will weeps.

Many critics are praising Manchester by the Sea for its realism, but Good Will Hunting is actually the more realistic film. In Manchester, Affleck doesn’t act grief-stricken so much as somnolent. While grief can make one feel broken (“I feel concussed,” Lewis wrote), there’s also a buzzing anxiety to it, a mental thrashing about. Grief is active; it likes to prod and provoke. It searches for relief. One of the most unbelievable scenes in Manchester occurs when, through his nephew Patrick, Lee meets an attractive single mother. The woman is obviously interested in Lee, and invites him in for a beer. At first Lee declines, but after more prodding he agrees. For an agonizing ten minutes, Lee sits and refuses even to make small talk.

Despite the praise for Affleck, he is overacting here, and the movie suffers. (Lucas Hedges’ funny and dynamic portrayal of Patrick almost steals the movie from Affleck). Having the ear of a sympathetic woman is a perfect moment to have Lee explore his pain. Like Good Will Hunting, Manchester could use such opportunities to chart Lee’s progress from a completely closed off man to one confronting the terrible tragedy that drew him into this vortex. Unfortunately, the tone of the film, from the cracked dialogue to the wintry cinematography to the general despair, is more suited to a story about hopelessness—William Kennedy’s great novel, Ironweed, comes to mind.

This is not a plea for movies that depict only sunshine and froth, but for a story arc and a realistic depiction of the phenomenon being explored. Even if a dude won’t go to a therapist, we can usually find an outlet with our friends. Had Lee just opened up to a bartender it would have created at least some small break in the gloom, a crack in the walking dead mood we get for two hours.

During the final scene of Manchester by the Sea, I actually laughed out loud. Lee and Patrick are walking up a gentle hill after attending a funeral, tossing a small rubber ball back and forth. Lee tosses the ball to Patrick, who drops it. “Just let it roll downhill,” Lee mutters, still lost in his storm cloud. Long before that scene, Lee—and the movie—felt as if it had already sunk under the weight of its own sadness. The dreary mood had been so relentless for so long that in its final moments the film tipped into satire. It ended not as Good Will Hunting or Ironweed, but as Debbie Downer.

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  • ErinErin

    Thank you for this review! I suspected this arc (if you can call it that) might go that way. I loved Good Will Hunting for its realism and poignant truth about people and relationships. Thank you for sparing me the disappointment on this one.

  • Robert Welch

    I am so glad I found this review. I am from the north shore of Boston. Although I have not lived there for years I thought the feeling, mood and strange beauty of that area was captured perfectly. I felt like I was at home. Saying that, I walked away from this movie wondering what the big deal was. I searched the internet for an hour trying to find out what it was that I had missed in the movie for so many critics to heap praise on it. Thankfully, I found this review. It put into words the feelings I had about the movie that I could not express. Yes, it was great acting, yes it was great cinematography, but, there was no story. Nothing happened. No ones life changed. Neither character affected the other character in any way. Was that the point?

    • Art

      I agree so much. Thought I had lost my touch somewhere.

  • Domanion

    I suspect this film was made with the intent of being “real,” or whatever than means today. A typical Generation X affectation is to be as strikingly real, or whatever is perceived to be so out there, and anyone that needs change, or emotional catharsis can just get over themselves. I also do not understand the praise being cast at this movie. I have no problem with an ending that doesn’t resolve everything or isn’t Disney-happy, but I need to see some kind of change; most people do, which is why no one make movies about paint drying.

  • jmarg214

    With all regards to Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting, being an orphan is a different kind of pain & grief than inadvertently killing your children in a drunken stupor. The respective comparison you draw between the grief of those two characters is dubious at best, in my opinion. While I do agree the movie is a bit overrated, I thought Casey Affleck did an amazing job. I don’t know if there is a comparable movie character to Affleck’s Lee and I would be shocked if he didn’t win an Oscar for this performance.

  • Mac

    Great review. The movie is overrated and painful to watch. I walked out thinking there must be something wrong with me after reading reviews that spoke highly of it. It is a movie designed to suck the life out of you, but I ended up laughing because it was incredibly overacted and uncompromisingly depressing.

  • Kevin Ford

    So the reviewer doesn’t even get the number of kids dead correct which make me question if you even payed attention. I thought the movie was well directed and produced and you are right about the male emotional response to the events. But this was well done and doesn’t deserve the “hate” you give it. I would complain more about the final scene and how it ends but I have never seen a film tackle an issue like this. Casey and Michele did a great job (except the scene where the meet on the side street which I believe was poorly acted) making a tragedy resonate in our minds eith that type of tragedy. I recommend watching it on DVD and give it a shot despite its incredibly depressing tone.

  • Christine Mullis

    I’m glad I found this review too – it took awhile to find one that wasn’t filled with praise for this movie. My problem with it was not only did the main character not change and not grow, but I didn’t care like I should. I mean, this movie has three kids who die in a fire, practically at the hands of the father – who also loses the last close relative he has left, his brother. Yet I barely even teared up. The movie should of grabbed you into his grief right from the start and never let you go. It did not. I also felt little sympathy for the teenager, he mostly annoyed me the way teenagers can. A movie needs to find some meaning to hold on to, just as we have to create meaning in our own lives – the conclusion of this one seemed to say sometimes things are so bad they will never get better and some things are so horrible you can never get over them. Great movies that deal with tragic events find something in them to give you hope or at least make sense out of the people’s lives – I’m thinking of something like “Life is Beautiful” here. In many ways, this one felt like a documentary instead of a piece of art.

    • Hudson Bennett

      But things DO get better. He finally hears his wife’s apology and thinks about getting another room, showing he’s starting to let someone in his life again after living in isolation for years. Which I found much better than Hollywood Inspiration telling me how to get over child incineration.

      • cetrata

        He ends up rejecting the exwife and sees another room as his ticket back to a mediocre life so he hasnt really changed.

  • RoccoJohnson

    I loved the movie and the acting was superb, with the exception of Matthew Broderick. It’s probably not his fault, it’s that his character was written to be so one dimensional. His whole scene at the dinner table eemed like it was a clip from an entirely different movie.

    At any rate that’s all forgivable, but what isn’t, is the film’s ending. The ending was very sudden and abrupt. The film didn’t necessarily need a “Hollywood ending” as much as it just needed an ending–it felt very incomplete. I’ve seen statements by the writer/director where he tries to absolve himself from his lazy lack of a finish by defending his artistic ideals of not filling in all the blanks, and trying not to put a big happy bow on it, but honestly, it comes across as more likely that he wrote the ending first then worked backward in order to support it. Being that critics fawn all over these kind of ragged, incomplete endings, and seem to view them as some sort of higher art form, it strikes me that Lonergan was indeed trying to elicit critical praise by tacking this one on to this film, which again supports my theory that the entire film was built around the ending.

    I thought the rest of the film was superb, and while some have blamed Affleck for being indulgent I felt that it was just the opposite. I felt Affleck displayed externally the anguish of grief felt inwardly by those who’ve experienced great tragedy. There’s no other way he could’ve played this, and, as in life, our outward affect is merely a symptom, and display of the inward condition of the heart. Further, in life grieving has no time table and to expect that Affleck would just wake up one day and get on with his life would not have been believable. I think he did an outstanding job.

    I conclusion, I would’ve given this film a 10 out of 10 but the ending just really brings it down.

  • erinshann

    I agree with you whole-heartedly. Good Will Hunting is excellent, but this movie just felt hollow to me. It’s not something I would ever want or need to see again. I get it, if it was meant as a cautionairy tale, as in, “Don’t do this to your life! Let this not be you!”, but other than that, I just don’t see the point.