Film review: Manchester by the Sea

by James Robins / 13 February, 2017

Boston handyman Lee (Casey Affleck) with his ex-wife (Michelle Williams).

A family drama that follows a sad, angry man forced to confront his past.

This film has the outward appearance of a deadbeat downer. It follows moping Boston handyman Lee (Casey Affleck) as he returns to his austere hometown in the wake of his brother’s death. The journey pitches him into ­contact with his ex-wife (Michelle Williams) and a philandering teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges), who suddenly comes into his custody. Lee is unable to process any of these heavy shifts. Unsure of how to behave, he carries the stiff shoulders and glum expression of a man who has already seen far too much grief for one lifetime.

The source of this taciturnity is revealed in flashback midway through the film – a tragic moment of drunken forgetfulness that leads to unimaginable pain. However, Kenneth Lonergan, writing and directing, plays this horror scene as a comedy of errors, a humiliating farce that undercuts whatever heady emotion ought to be knocking us sideways.

Such ploys lend the picture an air of disjointed obliqueness. For a story about the inhibiting qualities of mourning, this looks a little strange.

You can see that Lonergan is attempting a slow, natural build-up towards pathos and catharsis, but these things never arrive, partly because of the dry jokes offloaded at inopportune moments and the unintended laughs that come at times of arch seriousness (crying over frozen chicken, for example).

Affleck’s performance may also be partly to blame. He’s so outwardly rigid and brow-beaten that any empathy we may feel crashes on his expressionless face like the Atlantic on the Massachusetts coast. The best emoting he can manage is a mild grimace that bares his bottom teeth, which certainly isn’t enough to survive on. During awards season, these turns come to be called “controlled” or “tightly wound”. I just wondered how he could get away with doing so little.

Manchester by the Sea isn’t a bad film. But it does languish, suspended between ­ultra-sincerity and inadvertent absurdity. ••½


This article was first published in the February 4, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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