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

IN CINEMAS NOW

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.

Latest

Is this the transformational government we were looking for?
91411 2018-05-24 00:00:00Z Politics

Is this the transformational government we were lo…

by The Listener

Finance Minister Grant Robertson described Budget 2018 as “bread and butter”. It was. But bread-and-butter pudding was what the public were after.

Read more
Crooked House – movie review
91198 2018-05-24 00:00:00Z Movies

Crooked House – movie review

by James Robins

A Christie adaptation has a bleak reveal.

Read more
The power of sharing stories about anxiety and depression
90669 2018-05-24 00:00:00Z Psychology

The power of sharing stories about anxiety and dep…

by Marc Wilson

People assailed by depression need to know they're not alone – and stories shared by celebrities and non-celebrities go a long way in helping.

Read more
Wynyard Quarter welcomes French patisserie La Petite Fourchette
91365 2018-05-23 15:41:53Z Auckland Eats

Wynyard Quarter welcomes French patisserie La Peti…

by Kate Richards

French cakes and tarts are the highlight at new Wynyard Quarter opening, La Petite Fourchette.

Read more
Can YouTube produce a Spotify killer?
91338 2018-05-23 12:41:02Z Tech

Can YouTube produce a Spotify killer?

by Peter Griffin

Youtube will today roll out its revamped subscription streaming service YouTube Music, upping the stakes in a market dominated by Spotify and Apple.

Read more
Otago University's attempt to silence a women's health issue was wrong - period.
91328 2018-05-23 11:51:31Z Social issues

Otago University's attempt to silence a women's he…

by Genevieve O’Halloran

Critic's controversial and crude cover wasn't going to win any design awards - but did it really warrant seizure by Otago University?

Read more
Auckland icon The French Cafe sold to top restaurateurs
91318 2018-05-23 10:28:45Z Auckland Eats

Auckland icon The French Cafe sold to top restaura…

by Kate Richards

Simon Wright and Creghan Molloy-Wright, who’ve owned The French Café for twenty years, have sold it to top restaurateurs Sid and Chand Sahrawat.

Read more
Eye off the ball: Why did Netball NZ let our winningest coach get away?
91311 2018-05-23 09:50:15Z Sport

Eye off the ball: Why did Netball NZ let our winni…

by Fiona Barber

Incredibly, Noeline Taurua – the only Kiwi coach to win the trans-Tasman ANZ Championship – didn’t even make shortlist for the new Silver Ferns coach.

Read more