The Failure of “Manchester by the Sea”

Casey Affleck & director/writer Kenneth Lonergan

This year, film critics have lauded Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea as a masterpiece, but the film falls short when (spoiler alert!) its hero is too damaged to transcend his grief, and not consumed enough by it to die.

Taken from the pages of mythology, the film’s protagonist Lee Chandler (played by Casey Affleck with total intransigence) embodies a Massachusetts Sisyphus, (say that 5 times fast) damned to roll a boulder of guilt up a steep hill daily, only to see it roll down again by sunset. It’s a shattering, Oscar worthy performance, rife with integrity and pathos. The cast also includes standout turns by Kyle Chandler, Michelle Williams & Lucas Hedges.

Lucas Hedges & Casey Affleck

Affleck’s Lee has endured the most cruel tragedy that any man could suffer, leaving him trapped in cycle of depression and isolation with only alcohol and violence to provide outlets for his pain. Thus, the stage is set for a great tragedy worthy of Shakespeare; or an inspiring family drama in the vein of Horton Foote. But, the author/director has chosen a lesser avenue.

Lonergan, like his hero, hasn’t the courage to shit or get off the pot. He simply cuts and runs at the breaking point, rendering Manchester a small, sad saga that critics, film students and academics will adore. Simply put, it amounts to self-conscious, art-for-arts-sake drudgery.

While a whatever ending after two hours of emotional fishhooks is the cause for celebration in certain high-minded circles, to this reviewer, the finale is the death knell for a potentially brilliant movie, richly deserving of what you have just read — a shitty review.

See what I mean?

From Aristotle’s Poetics: “A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself; in appropriate and pleasurable language;… in a dramatic rather than narrative form; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish a catharsis of these emotions.”