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.