"Kenneth Lonergan is possibly the best filmmaker most people have never heard of," wrote Charles McGrath in a profile for the New York Times a couple of weeks ago. "His first movie, You Can Count on Me, shared the grand jury prize at Sundance in 2000, won an Academy Award nomination for Laura Linney and helped boost the career of Mark Ruffalo. But his next film, Margaret, though now considered a true masterpiece by many critics, got tangled in a nightmarish feud over who controlled the final cut. After six years and three lawsuits…, Mr. Lonergan, who was already a successful playwright before wandering into the movie business, could have been forgiven for just walking away from it. But he agreed to write his new film, Manchester by the Sea (due Nov. 18), on the understanding that his friend Matt Damon would direct. When Mr. Damon became unavailable, he found himself behind the camera again, dealing with difficulties of his own making…. It was a huge, tearjerking hit at Sundance last winter, and Amazon, which paid $10 million for the domestic distribution rights, is already mapping out an Oscar campaign."

"When we first meet Lee (Casey Affleck), he's a caustic Boston handyman in trouble for arguing with the tenants," writes NPR's Linda Holmes. "He's shaken by a phone call revealing that his brother has died, and the film begins to integrate Lee's recollections of his brother (Kyle Chandler), whose diagnosis with congestive heart failure several years earlier finished off his marriage and left him as effectively the single father of what is now a teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee returns to Manchester, where he once lived, to bury his brother and take whatever responsibility he can for his nephew."

"The story, founded in cliche, is about Lee coming to terms with his past through coping with this new sadness," writes Notebook editor Daniel Kasman. "It is to be expected. But what is surprising and is the film’s greatness is its lack of urgency to pursue this theme…. There aren’t many 'big moments,' Lee is too withdrawn for that, Patrick too wry and charmingly sarcastic despite his mild sadness, Jody Lee Lipes’s lighting serious but Lonergan’s direction unhurried, attentive, and surprisingly varied in tone from scene to scene."

"It’s only when the film buckles down to explain what’s eating Lee and why he left town in the first place—about as foregone a reveal as might be expected—that Lonergan seems to be straining for melodramatic notes that aren’t in his story’s range," finds Angelo Muredda, writing for Cinema Scope. "The prickly warmth, specificity, and gallows humor that is his stock in trade is gradually diluted by the generic mechanics of an important prestige picture, complete with dramatic show-stopping cameo by Oscar darling Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife and co-sufferer. The result is something perfectly fine, and all the more disappointing for it."


Lonergan's written an appreciation of Williams and her performance for Variety: "In person, she gives the impression of being very delicate. But there is nothing small or delicate about the volcano of feeling she has on tap, ready to loose into whatever channels the specifics of her role suggest. Despite my long-ingrained opinion that writing and acting are essentially the same process, there are times when I just don’t understand that extra bit of magic by which an actor actually becomes what I can only write down. I’ve wanted to work with her for years. But I was totally unprepared for just how hard she works and how much she has to offer."

When Manchester by the Sea screened in Toronto, Naomi Skwarna, writing for the TIFF Review, suggested that it "joins the ranks of outstanding work like Steve McQueen’s Shame, or Ray McKinnon’s Rectify in taking a character so overly familiar, so opaque, and finding meaning there. The leads in all these dramas are American, able-bodied, heterosexual white men of different classes, who, for different reasons, lapse on the privilege of their birthright."

"This is a film about what happens when you can't triumph over grief," writes Bilge Ebiri in the Voice. More from Matt Fagerholm (RogerEbert.com), Tina Hassannia (Movie Mezzanine) and Ben Nicholson (CineVue, 4/5).

And for Variety, Kristopher Tapley asks Affleck about working with Lonergan, not only on Manchester but also one a few plays: "Oh my God, I love it. When you have a director that gives you direction that makes you much better than anything you could have done on your own, it’s just a gift."

Update, 10/4: "I don’t much care to dwell on the possibility that anyone could remain unmoved by this expansive, indelible portrait of family, heartache, grief, and loss," writes Eli Goldfarb in Brooklyn Magazine. "Shattering and luminous, destined to be treasured for generations, this film is, above all, a gift."

Update, 10/7: "With his willingness to throw ordinary characters into almost unbearably tragic situations from which no greater meaning seems salvageable, Lonergan stands apart from the bulk of American narrative directors working today," writes Jackson Arn at Reverse Shot. "In many ways, Manchester, his third film, fits most comfortably within the tradition of American literary realism that boomed in the early twentieth century with Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Wolfe, and Sherwood Anderson and arguably survived later in the century in novelists like John Edward Williams and Richard Ford."

Update, 10/25: Affleck's on the cover of Variety, and Ramin Setoodeh's written up the profile and spoken with Gus Van Sant about working with the actor.

Update, 11/5: Steven Zeitchik profiles Lonergan for the Los Angeles Times, while Cara Buckley talks with Affleck for the New York Times.


Updates, 11/20: "In 21st-century American cinema—from Mystic River to Gone Baby Gone, from The Fighter to The Departed—the Bay State is where the myths of post-ethnic -class white identity have been forged," writes A.O. Scott in the New York Times. And "to deny that Manchester by the Sea has a racial dimension is to underestimate its honesty and overlook its difficult relevance."

"In Manchester by the Sea, Affleck embodies emotional stasis, stolid far beyond the usual psychological cloud-cover of your average New England grief picture," writes Nicolas Rapold in Brooklyn Magazine. "Lonergan’s latest, finely-tuned work shows an unbowed director plunging into the depths of grief, content to sink down, with an aggrieved character who could just as well take his own life in order to shake off his burden."

"The scene that may stay with me the longest from Manchester by the Sea is an encounter between Lee and his ex-wife that occurs late in the film," writes Slate's Dana Stevens. "As years of pent-up sorrow, guilt, and resentment pour out in a kind of stammered operatic duet, Lee lets himself go for just a moment, speaking from the heart and weeping openly—then just as quickly shuts down again. It’s a moment that most actors would hit just a touch too hard, making sure the audience noted both moments of transition, basking first in the bathos and then in the struggle for self-control. But Affleck, giving the finest performance of an already impressive career opposite the always astonishing Williams, denies us the relief of that catharsis by underplaying the transitions between sorrow and self-command."

For RogerEbert.com editor Matt Zoller Seitz, Manchester is "the funniest movie about grief ever made. But that's far from the only remarkable thing about it. This film… contains multitudes of emotions, people and ideas, in such abundance that if you ask somebody to describe it, you should probably take a seat first."

"Three films, as well as a handful of Broadway plays, have cemented Longeran as a classical dramatist at heart," writes Peter Labuza for LAist. "He crafts melodramatic narratives that ring out toward larger themes, just as John Steinbeck and Arthur Miller had done. But he can be a deceptively sly filmmaker who challenges many of our expectations for the Great American Tragedy. If Manchester does invest itself in highly tumultuous drama (the revelations are guaranteed tear duct operators), Lonergan also invites a number of ridiculous moments of great comedy."


In the Voice, April Wolfe suggests that "Lonergan's asking: What if no one in this story even knows what depression is? The result is a poignant, surprisingly hilarious depiction of death, grieving, and small-town life."

"Manchester by the Sea isn’t just about coping but also about how others in his characters’ orbit determine if they can or can’t carry that weight," writes Tim Grierson for the New Republic. "This includes the viewer, too—there is perhaps no current filmmaker whose movies are so intentionally a challenge to the limits of our empathy."

Interviews with Lonergan: Daniel Eagan (Film Comment) and Susan Wloszczyna (WhereToWatch, parts 1 and 2).

Update, 11/24: "The essence of Lonergan’s art is the exquisite filigree, the distinguished grain and varied texture of that daily life, delivered with a tactile precision and immediacy that delivers the movie’s pain not through the eyes and ears but to the viewer’s skin and bone," writes the New Yorker's Richard Brody. Manchester is "less a movie of aesthetics than of synesthesia, transmitting an unbearable burden of inner coldness and emptiness by means of warmhearted wonder."

"One of the cruelest things about tragedy is that the world doesn’t stop turning," writes Sean Burns for WBUR. "No matter how devastated you may be, life goes on in a million pesky, annoying and sometimes inappropriately funny ways. This isn’t something movies typically tend to acknowledge, unless we’re talking about the films of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan, where laughter and grief come crashing together in big waves of unpredictable emotions, often amid the most mundane circumstances. Though precisely written and sometimes overly controlled in their camerawork, these pictures convey a deeply human, moment-to-moment instability—like those times when you find yourself crying in the middle of the day for no reason at all, or trying to suppress a giggling fit at a funeral."


Updates, 12/14: "Lonergan’s new film raises Masshole tragedy above the level of fuckin’ tragedy at which it usually gets stuck," writes A.S. Hamrah in n+1. "Despite the film’s elaborate flashback structure, it does not get bogged down in plot. It reveals each character in his or her own time, meandering into scenes a conventional writer-director would cut."

"Margaret may be the more lyrical film, and You Can Count on Me is more straightforward in its telling, but Manchester is the most daring of the three for the way Lonergan paints a fresh layer of grief over an existing one," writes Leah Pickett in the Chicago Reader.

Marc Maron talks with Casey Affleck (85'01").

Updates, 12/17: "Manchester by the Sea is so engrossing that our attention never wanders from what we are being shown on screen," writes Francine Prose for the New York Review of Books. "Its compassion, its tenderness and truthfulness, its patient examination of conscience and penitence, and its genuine respect for the complexity, intelligence, and dignity of ordinary working people make it seem the polar opposite of the reckless, combative tweets emanating from Trump Tower, and from the empty promises and rhetoric of the recent campaign. It returns us to a country (this country, not so long ago) in which it was less common for Americans to feel (and to express) contempt, fear, and mistrust of those fellow citizens who look and dress differently than they do. And Lonergan’s work reminds us of why it is so important—so necessary—to keep making and looking at art."

Tom Shone for Newsweek: "Lonergan listens to his characters with the gentle forbearance of a Catholic priest receiving confession from his more error-prone parishioners—unshocked by what he hears, even quietly amused, generous with the absolutions."

Update, 12/29: For Paul Attard at In Review Online, "what keeps Manchester by the Sea from becoming too one-note, given its depressing subject matter, is the comedic beats throughout. A puzzling inclusion at first, these moments help the drama breathe, and give more dimensionality to the emotional responses of these characters."

Update, 1/8: "Striking a delicate balance between the sharp focus and sprawling scope of his first two films, this heartbreaking third feature finally confirms Lonergan as an auteur of genuine merit rather than just exasperating promise," writes Mark Kermode in the Observer.


Updates, 1/12: "When everyone is polite in Manchester it is like a stricken Toytown," writes Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times. "A nuclear winter of the unsaid…. But once it hits open water, once it spreads its quiet roar and emotional reach, this is a marvelous film, harrowing and haunting in equal measure. It’s as moving for what it doesn’t say—but lets the elements of human meteorology say instead—as for what it speaks out or spells out."

"This film has already been hailed as a masterpiece and I think it is," writes the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, "though of a more conventional kind than Lonergan’s previous movie, Margaret. Manchester by the Sea sees him assume the self-aware weightiness of an Arthur Miller or a Eugene O’Neill, but blends this with some wonderfully played comic scenes, and even uses some trad jazz over a scene transition that is rather like Woody Allen."

Update, 1/14: "Do you see any kind of connection between Lee Chandler and Lisa Cohen from Margaret, and do you see your work as having a kind of connectivity to it?" Little White Lies' David Jenkins asks Lonergan: "I do when I look back at it, I don’t when I’m writing it."

Update, 1/16: I wouldn't read this one until you've seen the films, but for Alicia Christoff, writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, "more powerful than the film’s overt emphasis on loss is its subtler meditation on care—its exploration of the ways Lee will and will not be able to care for Patrick, and for Randi, and for himself."

Update, 1/19: Daisy Woodward interviews Michelle Williams for AnOther.

NYFF 2016 Index.