Casey Affleck gives a quietly devastating performance in the gripping new drama Manchester by the Sea, the third film in 16 years from acclaimed director Kenneth Lonergan. Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a withdrawn Boston-based janitor who gets an unexpected call from a family friend in northern Massachusetts with the news that Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has had a major heart attack. After making the hour-long drive up the state, Lee arrives to the news that his brother passed away during the trip and that he’s now responsible for taking care of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), who lives close by in the city from which the film takes its title.
This raises a problem for Lee, not only because he feels estranged from Patrick after years of little to no contact with his family but also because looking after him would seem to require Lee to relocate to his hometown. As Patrick points out, Lee’s living situation is much more malleable as he lives in a small one bedroom apartment and handywork can be done anywhere but it’s not that simple. A tragedy in his past has made him a pariah in the community and the sight alone of his now re-married ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) is almost too much for him to bear.
Lonergan uses a unique flashback structure to reveal the circumstances through which Lee was cast into a self-imposed exile, both in the physical and psychological sense. This is the first film of Lonergan’s that I’ve seen and it’s clear that he’s a very deliberate and precise filmmaker, one who trusts the audience to keep up with the artistic decisions (especially those involving the editing) that he’s making. He’s also a director that allows his actors to dig deep within the nuances of the writing (Lonergan also penned the original screenplay) and to create some truly stunning performances as a result.
Affleck has and will continue to receive praise for his work here (as well he should) but Hedges is every bit as revelatory in his role as a teenager who doesn’t quite know how to manage his reaction to the surprise death of his father. Life seems to go on, at least on the surface –he asks Lee if he can invite friends over and have pizza on the night of Joe’s passing — but it’s clear that his method of coping is in sharp contrast to Lee’s more insular approach. Patrick’s wicked sense of humor not only feels like a credible emotional response to such tragic events but it also gives this oppressively dour story a much-needed sense of relief.
Even with the jabs of dark comedy piercing through, Manchester is still a heavy sit and there will no doubt be some that find it more emotionally exhausting than traditionally “enjoyable”. The important thing is that it doesn’t feel like Lonergan is intentionally making these characters suffer endlessly for no reason; they feel like real people doing their best to battle valiantly with their grief. Bruising and resonant, Manchester by the Sea is a powerful piece that may deny conventional catharsis but does so on behalf of its richly authentic character work.