Why ‘Manchester by the Sea’ Gets Male Grief Wrong

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.

    • B Robert

      Moron.

    • Judy

      That’s what I said a half hour into it, I could paint a wall and we could c watch it dry. What am overrated, snooze fest.

  • 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.

    • Steve Hall

      Try Denzel Washington in Fences. He outperforms Casey in circles. Affleck is way too affected (insincere/unbelievable) and there’s no arc or building of catharsis in his 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.

        • B Robert

          He doesnt reject his ex wife. He says he literally “cant beat it”…”it” is the tragedy of that place and those ppl…he does get a spare room and its left open to his progress…its not over night…u ppl all make me sick with how stupid and shallow and asinine your empty thoughtless remarks are…leave the film stuff to ppl that actually know film

          • erinshann

            Are YOU serious???? I don’t love a movie, so I’m asinine and shallow and stupid and a shell of a human? I don’t normally take the bait in online arguments, but your disrespect is phenomenal. You can be passionate about your opinions without being rude. I am entitled to mine. I am sure there are many great aspects to this movie. I just don’t see it as being “best picture” and I wasn’t enamored.

          • B Robert

            Yawn.

          • George Lechner

            I understood the I Can’t Beat It line to mean he can’t beat the town, the memories, the animosity the community felt towards him.

      • B Robert

        All these other ppl and the writer are idiots…the film is a masterpiece…ppl just like to find reasons to hate something critics tell them is good…

    • B Robert

      The ending completely fits the characters, the themes, and the storyline–and its left open to whether the nephew will in fact move into his spare room in boston. The fact he even mentions the spare room is in and of itself progression of his grief and connection with life. Then they bounce a ball uo a hill, it rolls down, he says “just leave it” but the nephew picks it up then bounces ball at him to get his attention, then bounces it again and he catches it as they continue walking up the hill. Then followed by fishing peacefully. How stupid can any of you be? The sentiment and metaphors and progression and open future abd tone completely matches the rest of the film. Morons…..

      • Steve Hall

        The real problem with the film is there is no reason for empathy towards Affleck or the rest of the characters (particularly his foul-mouthed, narcissistic nephew). There is no Artistotelian cathartic build-up in plot. In other words, the audience is alienated from the characters and action.

  • 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.

    • B Robert

      The ending completely fits the characters, the themes, and the storyline–and its left open to whether the nephew will in fact move into his spare room in boston. The fact he even mentions the spare room is in and of itself progression of his grief and connection with life. Then they bounce a ball uo a hill, it rolls down, he says “just leave it” but the nephew picks it up then bounces ball at him to get his attention, then bounces it again and he catches it as they continue walking up the hill. Then followed by fishing peacefully. How stupid can any of you be? The sentiment and metaphors and progression and open future abd tone completely matches the rest of the film. Morons.

      • Laura G

        Agreed B. Robert

  • 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.

    • B Robert

      You must be a shell of a human i see

  • B Robert

    This writer is pathetic.

    • Adam C

      B. Robert
      It seems to me you are pathetic. Because you identify with a character, Lee, who pathetically refuses to grow up. All Lee has to do is stop drinking — he has a wife, three kids, and he’s playing ping pong in the basement, doing coke, with the boys all night?? Grow up. Then after the tragedy, his brother gives him a second chance to have a life and a family, and Lee won’t stop drinking and punching people in the face? That’s literally all he has to do to be a good person and presence in Patrick’s life. When he says “I can’t beat it” he means he can’t stop being a kid and grow up already. He just wants to run away.

      When I first saw the movie, I was frustrated with the ending – my frustration mirroring closely the article above. And I was further frustrated by the writer/director’s quote, “F— closure, there is no closure in real life.” Then I realized that I was playing into Lonergan’s hands…he’s just being provocative with this ending. It doesn’t even make consistent logical sense. If Lee is so addled by grief, why does he shovel the snow every morning in
      Boston, why does he do a good job as super (except when he’s blowing up), why does he come up to Manchester at all when his brother dies? He is good person, getting some satisfaction out of the simple life pleasures of work. So why can’t he just take the next step and be a more realized person with a connection to Patrick?

      This circular reasoning is what makes the film “art” meant to provoke this kind of debate, I personally prefer entertainment like “Good Will Hunting” that is meant to inspire and unify people rather than troll message boards.

      On a wider note, I think the success of this film is an example of why Trump got elected. People used to like aspirational stories, where the hero accomplishes something we all would aspire to. Now there is a growing trend in entertainment glorifying the losers: in erotica like 50 Shades, the main characters are usually emotionally scarred by some previous abuse; in “Split” the heroine is spared at the end – not by a heroic act, but because of her scars of victimhood; and in Manchester you identify with Lee’s stubborn victim identity. Everyone wants it to be ok to be a victim, and you even want it glorified in your “entertainment” and now you got it in your President, the Victim in Chief.

      • B Robert

        Do u read what u type? U sound like an insane idiot. U need help. And better taste.

      • Peace Lily

        I agree with you Adam C. The reaction to this movie is a glorification of victimhood and misses the part that makes a story complete – the overcoming. I am so interested to hear how people in the recovery movement react to it. The victim-rescuer-perpetrator triangle is so obviously playing out here. Let’s hope this discussion opens up on a wider scale

      • KingChris

        I agree with most of your analysis but I think you are reaching when you mention Donal Trump.

  • B Robert

    This writer is a fairy that knows nothing about tough silent dudes from east coast…but likely pictures banging them and thinks la la land is amazing when its a bubbling turd

  • May

    The line he quotes from C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed is very familiar to me. I read it as I was trying to pick myself up while grieving the unexpected death of the two closest people to me in this life. Loss and the grief that ensues is an experience nothing can prepare you for. Reading Lewis’ observation was for me the first time I grasped that the experience I was in the middle of was common. I wasn’t alone in it. This one quote illustrates an essential understanding of the experience of grief. What this writer has done is to mistake the fear Lewis refers to with what he knows to be feelings and behaviors that are rooted in fear — anxiety and aggression, specifically. He’s totally missed the point. C. S. Lewis was referring to the feelings and behaviors that fear often prompts, but something much more essential. There is fear that is so engulfing that you are left impotent to act. You can be so pervaded by it that you can’t transmute it into some less terrifying feeling, like anxiety. It is there, right in the middle of your chest. You can’t act, you certainly don’t feel aggression. Your sense of yourself as an agent in your own life has gone. You are no longer you and precludes acting. The version of you that would have acted in rage does’t exist. Realizing this further compounds your fear. This is why this film is so brilliant. It captures perfectly the alienation of grief, much of it rooted in essential fear, the kind of fear Lewis was referring to. This writer is an arrogant fool who doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.

  • May

    ??

  • Peace Lily

    I am glad to have found someone else expressing discomfort with this film. Thanks for this insightful, well thought-out piece, Mark Judge.

    I was very disappointed by MbtS after looking forward to seeing this it for ages. I actually wish I had never seen it now – it disturbs me how many positive reviews it has gotten.

    I was astonished that the main character wasn’t charged with negligent homicide. I couldn’t believe it when the film ended after all that time trailing along with him and his misery, watching as he expresses the same self-involved behaviours that caused the death of this three children. He spreads his misery to every single person he meets and then ‘heroically’ decides his punishment is going to be to keep on being a miserable presence in the world.

    I saw Moonlight a few nights before and was blown away by its beauty, insight and humanity. I was enriched and inspired, and felt like I knew something new about the
    world.

    I wonder if MbtS could have only be made about a miserable, destructive, white man and the reaction to it is a reflection of how such men continue to be judged differently to the rest of us.

    That guy needed to go to jail and get into recovery. The people bewitched by this story need to stop being enablers and start holding such destructive white men accountable for their actions.

    There are real heroes in the world. This film is about as far from them as one can get.

    • KingChris

      You are spot on in your analysis. I find it hard to fathom how a miserable, melancholic destructive person can be viewed as some type of hero after watching his children burn to cinders. How long is a person to remain miserable and destructive over the grief that is caused by their own actions? This move is heavy handed with the way it portrays grief.

    • jeff y

      this review isn’t insightful. It just shows whoever wrote it has been dumbed down by hollywood drivel. To me Affleck was a completely believable character. I know because I used to be exactly like him.

  • Scott M

    In other words you would like to see him cry and scream and heal and see a counselor to let out all his grief. Kind of like the movie Ordinary People. Or like so many other cliched movies made. Personally I thought it was great. 10/10

  • Jenny

    He had 3 kids actually

  • Frank Madeira

    A bland , coincidental string of quotes. “Trust” crawled up to me from the beginning, I shall watch it again after quite a few years. Cemetery gates…

  • Piotr Gdansk

    Not sure Affleck overacted as he played the part as it was. I think u have more of a problem with the way the role was written.

  • KingChris

    The movie was disjointed and the flash back scene of the house burning down seemed overly unrealistic. A Loving Father who just witnessed his children burning to cinders would have a totally different reaction. Lee Chandler reaction just did not come across as realistic, no attempt at trying to run into the house to save them. Just a lost look on his face. The two hour melancholoy effect was heavy handed. Manchester by sea is the type movie you watch once and would not desire to watch it again.

    • John Hill

      AGREE .

    • Vicki McCormick

      I agree- wasted two hours of my life watching this long depressing boring movie.

  • Kerry Pechter

    Sheer torture. I became suspicious that this movie was fraudulent when Volvos appeared twice in about 90 seconds. It was just terrible. These supposedly working class people lived in communities where restored old New England-y houses cost over $1 million each… places like Jamaica Plains, MA, or Westport, CT, or Old Field, Long Island. No gas stations, or fast food stores or even grease spots on clothing to anchor the Hollywood “realism” here. It was long, repetitive, and the characters had no through-stories. The teenager and the star seemed to be in different films. The director or editor had no firm control over the flashbacks… Joe had a beard then didn’t have a beard then had a beard but no beard when he was dead. People drank but had no haggard face to show for it. Affleck had the face of someone who has never touched anything rougher than a yellow saddle-bound Samuel French script. I wanted to walk out when the house burst into flames and the stupid music swelled and the firemen (in spotless suits!) picked up the body bags. I wish I had walked out then. Haven’t been so disappointed in a movie since ‘La La Land’ and before that, ‘Captain Fantastic.’ All awful boojie drek. Now, ‘Fishtank.’ Or ‘Tangerine.’ Those are movies.

  • Missy A Stroh

    I am truly apalled at the lack of understanding depicted in these comments. First of all, Lee was an alcoholic and his demeanor would have projected to me exactly what a career alcoholic would do – not to mention the shock of what was happening in the scene of the fire and watching his THREE children’s lives taken while his wife breaks down in utter despair. He was numb, numb from whatever pain he was drinking and drugging to relieve, numb from the shock and then continued to be numb from the grief. Having experienced only a slight bit of this level of grief, I can attest to this numbness and completely understand the disease of alcoholism… I feel a complete lack of empathy for what this character went through self induced or otherwise. His and Randi’s lives were traumatically disrupted and he simply went forward going through the motions trying to somehow manage the emotional pain. Did we all not see his attempt at taking his own life immediately after the police interviewed him?? That was exactly the response to the tragedy I would have expected and he did connect more with Patrick over time, while dealing with his own very deep scars and troubled past in that town. Great film, VERY MOVING for those that can relate and want to be moved.

    • John Hill

      Awful long BORING film.

  • Daisy Rosado

    Does anyone here see the foreshadow of suicide ? The headstone with one missing name. The old man talking about his father never returning died went missing on a boat in the boat never came back. The way he made arrangements for him to stay with someone else and supposedly he was leaving in July to Boston but yet he didn’t have a place. in the last scene of them on a boat. Then it goes into the credits and one of the beginning scenes upon returning from credits is with the boat and then the rest of the scenes of that same area boat is gone. Am I the only one that feels like he never went to Boston instead he disappeared kind of like the old man started. that his last straw was when he almost burn down the house again with his nephew.

    • Daisy Rosado

      Oh and the seagulls just flying often times birds flying in movies like that are used to symbolize death

  • Jacob Melanson

    This article is complete bullshit.

    You know that he’s an alcoholic right? This is exactly what it looks like when people drown their sorrows in alcohol.

    • jeff y

      agreed. writer is naive or something.

  • jeff y

    To me Affleck was a completely believable character. I know because I used to be exactly like him. The writer of this review is letting their naive lack of experience and personal preference for redemptive or happy movie arcs impair their judgment.

    “Even if a dude won’t go to a therapist, we can usually find an outlet with our friends. ” Yeah, USUALLY, but this guy is an exception, and those people DO exist. It’s called grief and depression and calloused masculinity combined with alcohol abuse.

    While I do think the movie was over rated and not worthy of so much fanfare, I still felt it was a poignant portrait of a NE man who had been hardened and numbed by life experiences. it’s a 7.5/10 for me.

  • Carolyn Brown

    I cant discuss it as an Oscar win because I find the whole awards thing completely bizarre. So my views on whether he should have won that little man statue doesn’t matter. I just found his acting dreadful. Didn’t like the young boy either. My absolute favourite was Kyle Chandler and he acted all over the others despite very few scenes. I always use The Killing (original) as a good example of really wonderful acting by the people playing the grieving parents. And a bad example are the grieving parents in the highly overrated Broadchurch.

  • damianmcglynn

    aflack was living pergatory on Earth for the horrible Sin he committed.

  • I didn’t see the movie and don’t plan to, but when the reviewer says the hero should have explored his issues on a first date…no, that’s inappropriate and the victim won’t want a second date unless she’s a doormat.

  • ndrose

    I haven’t even watched the movie but am practically terrified to use our fireplace. Why do “working class” always have to be classless and have foul mouths? I just have too much sadness in real life to watch a movie with no hope in it.

  • George Lechner

    I personally would also have liked to see a more obvious direction the character of Lee would be taking but I also believe, as many have commented here & elsewhere, that life sometimes does just move sideways. Nevertheless, I thought there were several clues to indicate Lee was getting better, that there was some hope for his character; towards the end of the movie he wasn’t drinking in every scene. His stoic veneer did finally crack in his crying scene. He actually smiled on the boat towards the end. He was getting an extra room for his nephew to stay in during visits. He embraces his nephew with love in the “I can’t beat it” scene. The final scene where the two of them pass the ball between themselves suggests to me some continuity, that Patrick might be the catalyst to finally draw Lee back to the world of the living. I honestly enjoyed this movie despite being a little traumatized by it.