With Manchester by the Sea, writer-director Kenneth Lonergan has delivered a quietly devastating sucker punch of a film about the persistence of hope in the face of unfathomable loss. Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a Boston-based handyman, janitor and loner. A charter member of the dead-eyed walking wounded with zero fucks left to give, Lee is surly and sad, instigating bar fights, telling off his clients and barely existing in a one-room cell of an apartment. Lonergan’s beautiful writing and Affleck’s uncompromising performance make us wonder what shut down Lee and left him in this sad, ugly place.
The movie takes a while to clue us in, and sometimes the going gets rough. But as lacerating as the journey is, it’s worth it. Lee receives a life-changing phone call informing him of the death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, in a wonderfully lived-in, low-key performance). To make the funeral arrangements and deal with the messy aftermath, Lee returns to his bayside New England hamlet, a postcard of a place on the surface that, for Lee, roils with traumatic memories. His world turns upside down when he learns that his brother has appointed him guardian of his mouthy, funny, hockey-playing nephew Patrick (great work by Lucas Hedges from Moonrise Kingdom), who juggles girlfriends, a rock band, school and grief with uneven results. It’s the relationship between Lee and Patrick that supplies some badly needed humor and a sense of hope, however slight.
These are characters for whom life is not going to get much better; they’re just going to keep on keeping on as best they can. Lonergan, who began as a playwright and who writes like a novelist, employs a series of flashbacks in which he drops one bombshell after another to reveal what’s driven Lee to isolation. A strong, sad Gretchen Mol plays Patrick’s estranged mother, a recovering alcoholic clinging to her relationship born again-ism and her “fella,” a creepy, controlling Christian (Matthew Broderick). Michelle Williams (expect another Oscar nomination) kills in her few scenes as Lee’s remarried, emotionally ravaged ex-wife wife who’s trying, however tentatively, to move on. Her moments with Affleck, in which she dredges up their shared past, are so raw and painful that we’ll probably be watching and rewatching them on award shows this season and in years to come.
Bu it’s Affleck, inheriting a role once meant for Matt Damon, who astounds. He’s already shone in Gone Baby Gone, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Out of the Furnace but here, he’s so bristly and haunted that we’re tempted to call it a career-defining performance. And Lonergan, in only his third time behind the camera (the other two being You Can Count On Me and Margaret), has made a movie about unspeakable tragedy and suffering without wallowing in phony redemption or uplift.