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Manchester by the Sea reviews: Casey Affleck stars in awards-bound drama

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Claire Folger

Director Kenneth Lonergan’s third directorial effort in 16 years, the awards-bound Manchester by the Sea is, according to incoming critical reviews, a welcome return to the big screen for the man responsible for stirring dramas like Margaret and You Can Count on Me, with a monumental leading performance from Casey Affleck anchoring the hard-hitting title’s emotional core. 

Manchester by the Sea stars Affleck as a depressed, working-class handyman, Lee, thrust into the role of caretaker for his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges) shortly after the sudden death of his brother (Kyle Chandler). Michelle Williams plays Lee’s ex-wife, who serves as a constant reminder of the grave mistakes he made throughout his haunting, pain-ridden past. 

EW’s Chris Nashawaty calls the film a “richly textured, emotionally devastating meditation on grief” in his A-grade review, noting that the director “has given us a masterpiece.” 

Oscar pundit Sasha Stone of Awards Daily champions the film’s dramatic impact, admitting the movie spoke to her on a profound level, as she related to its themes surrounding parenthood, loss, and the process of grieving upon her first viewing, with Affleck’s ace performance tying the whole thing together. 

“Kenneth Lonergan’s latest is a film that feels so real there really isn’t a moment that allows us to step out of it to remind us we’re watching actors living a carefully planned narrative,” she writes. “Manchester by the Sea is easily Affleck’s best work in a long career of playing characters who keep so much in until, at last, they explode emotionally. What is so brilliant about this performance is that his face, his eyes, tell us what he can’t, what he never will. Thus, what’s compelling and fascinating about the film is watching how Affleck’s character manages the emotions he can’t bring himself to face.” 

Claire Folger

 

Rolling Stone‘s Peter Travers agrees. 

“No film this year has moved me more with its humor, heart and humanity,” his review reads. “Engrave the name Casey Affleck on the Oscar for Best Actor right now… ” 

Though he’s been touted as leading the pack in the Best Actor race since Manchester‘s first screening at Sundance at the top of the year, he faces stiff competition in the coming weeks, namely from Hollywood mainstays like Denzel Washington, who’s enjoying some of the best reviews of his career for his latest directorial effort, Fences; Ryan Gosling, who sang and danced his way into the hearts of critics in the current Best Picture frontrunner, La La Land; and Warren Beatty, who tackles the role of Howard Hughes in his directorial comeback, Rules Don’t Apply

Still, Manchester by the Sea continues the ongoing trend of early-debuters carrying their awards-charged momentum through the entire calendar year, whether premiering in Park City in January, as Manchester did, or at February’s Berlinale, like 2015’s 45 Years or 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. 

Following the film’s successful showings at major fall festivals in Telluride, Toronto, and New York, one of the earliest bellwether’s for Academy taste, the IFP Gotham Awards, nominated the movie for four of its annual awards, including Best Feature, Best Screenplay (Lonergan), Best Actor (Affleck), and Breakthrough Actor (Hedges). As balloting for the SAG Awards, which recognizes excellence in acting, begins on Thursday, the film is expected to register key nominations for Affleck and Williams when nods are announced on Dec. 14. 

Read what the critics are saying about Manchester by the Sea, which opens Nov. 18 in limited release, in the review excerpts below. 

Chris Nashawaty (EW

“A richly textured, emotionally devastating meditation on grief (a theme that runs through all of Lonergan’s films), Manchester stars Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, a quiet, put-upon handyman whose older brother (Kyle Chandler) drops dead from a heart attack, leaving behind a 16-year-old son (Lucas Hedges)… Affleck has never had a role that matches his minimal, anti-charisma style like this one. His tendency to be mumbly and awkward and withholding fits his character perfectly. And Hedges, as a temperamental teenager working through loss in his own authentically teenage way, is a real discovery. Michelle Williams, as Lee’s ex-wife, doesn’t get many scenes, but she cracks your heart open in the ones she has. If all of this makes Manchester sound like a three-hankie bummer, it isn’t. There are unexpected moments of humor, redemption, and grace. Lonergan has given us a masterpiece.”

Sasha Stone (Awards Daily)

“Kenneth Lonergan’s latest is a film that feels so real there really isn’t a moment that allows us to step out of it to remind us we’re watching actors living a carefully planned narrative. Because life doesn’t spare us any rest stops, maybe movies shouldn’t either. In this richly drawn portrait of unending grief, Casey Affleck is a protagonist at odds with what we want from him or for him or for the movie. Such is the nature of our need for films to fix things we can’t fix in our lives. Manchester by the Sea is easily Affleck’s best work in a long career of playing characters who keep so much in until, at last, they explode emotionally. What is so brilliant about this performance is that his face, his eyes, tell us what he can’t, what he never will. Thus, what’s compelling and fascinating about the film is watching how Affleck’s character manages the emotions he can’t bring himself to face.” 

Eric Kohn (IndieWire)

“On paper, then, Manchester offers nothing more than a by-the-numbers look at broken families searching for new beginnings, but Lonergan knows this brand of dramaturgy better than most. With cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes turning the drab landscape into an expression of Lee’s alienated state, each wide shot complicates the mood. But it’s Lonergan’s masterfully subtle writing, littered with awkward exchanges that speak far louder than any cohesive monologue, that gives Manchester its humanity… Manchester By the Sea offers few big, sweeping moments; such expectations work against its appeal. Although Lee must inevitably confront the fear and resentment he’s been suppressing for much of the picture, there are no grand revelations, and the tension dissipates in the third act. With Manchester, Lonergan transforms a formulaic scenario into something far more understated. If there’s a commercial demand for this type of narrative — and Amazon’s lucrative deal suggests as much — Manchester stands out for doing an old routine just right.” 

Todd McCarthy (The Hollywood Reporter)

“Although Manchester never feels stagy and is deeply enriched by the mostly coastal communities in which it is set, this is clearly the work of a writer who knows his way around creating characters and emotional dynamics in a manner more evident in works for the stage than for screens big or small. Instead of using shorthand, Lonergan layers and then layers some more, allows his characters to stew, not always disclose themselves and then come to decisions and changes naturally, or after due deliberation. And they can relapse and not always be ready for the breakthrough moment toward which the story seems to be pointing. The result is something that feels more akin to a full meal than the usual cinematic popcorn.” 

Brian Truitt (USA Today)

Manchester by the Sea is a deeply affecting and wickedly funny masterpiece showcasing the maturation of men, from the broken man and his nephew at its heart to the drama’s phenomenal filmmaker… What makes Manchester by the Sea one of the year’s best movies is how naturally Lonergan brings the audience into the family: You feel all their pain and sorrow, find a way to get past the grief, and embrace the deep hugs and laughs that come as a needed release.” 

David Edelstein (Vulture)

Affleck proves he can convey suffering as well as any actor alive. His trebly voice is cracked with pain. He comes with his own chill fog. But that fogginess can also make his acting seem vague and generalized. His Lee is too far beyond reach to have stature — although that might, admittedly, be Lonergan’s intent. Not everyone can rise to the level of a tragic hero. As Patrick, Hedges has a terrifically abrasive presence: He’s too emotionally defensive to accommodate himself to Lee’s hapless, halfhearted attempts at parenting. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife has an intensely moving scene on a staircase in the middle of town. She wants to call Lee back from where he is, even if it means opening herself up to the worst imaginable pain.” 

Peter Travers (Rolling Stone)

“You can’t really prepare yourself for the emotional powerhouse that is Manchester by the Sea. And you shouldn’t let big-mouth critics and friends tell you too much about what’s ahead in writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s transcendent benchmark. No film this year has moved me more with its humor, heart and humanity… Engrave the name Casey Affleck on the Oscar for Best Actor right now, so extraordinary and engulfing is his performance as Lee Chandler, a Boston janitor called back to his Massachusetts hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea when his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, superb) dies of congestive heart failure… Lonergan fills Manchester with disorderly sprawl, a sense of life as it’s lived and not manufactured by Hollywood. With brilliant contributions from cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes and composer Lesley Barber, the film lets us experience Lee as he closes himself off from the world. Affleck has been outstanding before, notably in Gone Baby Gone and his Oscar-nominated turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but these are his finest two-plus hours on screen.”