'Manchester By the Sea' Is a Tragedy Bursting With Life

Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea (2016)

In Kenneth Lonergan’s intricate character study, Casey Affleck’s deadpan grief and humor remind us that he is among America's best actors.

Manchester by the Sea

Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Cast: Casey Affleck, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, C.J. Wilson, Tate Donovan, Josh Hamilton, Matthew Broderick, Heather Burns, Gretchen Mol
Rated: R
Studio: Roadside Attractions
Year: 2016
US date: 2016-11-18 (Limited release)
UK date: 2017-01-13 (General release)

“It’s not a good disease.” Diagnosed with cancer at the start of Manchester by the Sea, Joe Chandler (Kyle Chandler) asks his doctor if there are any good diseases. “Poison ivy,” she replies, with the barest hint of a grin. At that, Joe’s wife Elise (Gretchen Mol), furious that they’re joking at a time like this, storms out of the hospital room.

Elise might be best advised not to watch Manchester by the Sea, a nearly perfect example of how to weave humor throughout tragedy. Carefully observant of how individuals get through all those days and nights that just keep coming during misfortune, the film reminds us that life doesn’t just stop because something terrible happens.

That’s the situation where Joe’s brother Kyle (Casey Affleck) finds himself. After a flashback to a scene where the two brothers are on a fishing boat, Kyle goofing around with Joe's son Patrick (Ben O'Brien), we cut to the present day. Kyle is a maintenance man at an apartment complex in Boston, far from the scenic town of the film's title. A drily comic montage shows Kyle’s flat silence when facing the complaints of the residents (or overhearing one confessing to an erotic fantasy about “her handyman”), as well as his short fuse.

This walking dead man isn’t the Kyle we first saw. Something has changed for him in the intervening time. Like Lonergan’s last film, the razor-edged masterpiece Margaret, this one is strewn more with emotional landmines than hints of the story to come. Here, we don't see what's happened to Kyle before he hears of Joe’s death. With no more visible emotion than a slightly greater heaviness to his movements, Kyle drives home for the funeral. Once there, he finds himself named in Joe’s will as the guardian of Patrick, now a rangy teenager played by Lucas Hedges.

At this point, Manchester by the Sea moves into slightly more familiar dramatic territory, in which the prodigal son returns to his home town after a death. For a time, it follows the usual stages of the funeral film, as Kyle reconnects with the places and people of his slightly younger and happier self. But there’s a dark cast to everything, from people whispering, “That’s him” as he passes, to the deep well of suffering Kyle sees in the eyes of his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), hints of a terrible past event likely to be revealed.

Instead of predictably uncovering the crucial secret in one climactic scene, Lonergan builds to it in a series of slowly building flashbacks. Once the moment comes, it hits with all the force of a blow to the head, leaving an aching sadness that keeps reverberating. All of which makes Manchester by the Sea sound like the worst kind of stillborn tragedy, in which the everyday terrors of life are set in amber, sadness laid out as an object to be admired.

Thankfully, Lonergan’s profane and bracing script refuses to leave life to the side. It manages the pivot from mournfulness to humor without making either seem like an easy out. Surprisingly, this is a genuinely funny film, helped along in large part by Affleck’s pinpoint deadpan and also Hedges’ affecting performance. While Patrick's efforts to hold on to his life patterns after his father's death might have seemed callous in less deft hands, but Hedges helps us see the sense of his responses to a suddenly uncertain future as they are steeped in adolescent myopia: his dad might be dead, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to stop trying to get laid by one of his two girlfriends. At once vulnerable, fearful, and willful, Patrick is one of the movie’s more fascinating characters.

It's Affleck's performance that forms a remarkable center for the film, however. If some viewers may resist his cool distance in the present-day scenes, his roustabout energy and sarcastic verve in the flashbacks are infectious. They help to underline that the quietude Affleck deploys through most of the film is far from flat; he plays the silences like a fiddle.

It’s not a criticism to say that Manchester by the Sea is no Margaret. Lonergan has written a far more traditional story this time out, and doesn't wrestle with as many large questions. Manchester by the Sea makes its own case as a remarkably human and brilliantly performed and written drama.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.