Casey Affleck has come a long was as an actor. When he first started out, I found him uncharismatic and dull. He shuffled through certain scenes, mumbling and looking like he really was not interested in the material he was reciting. Now, to be fair, some of his earlier films were not good. It was not until he was cast as a private investigator in brother Ben’s film Gone, Baby Gone that Casey really impressed me. Since then he has been more consistent in his acting and with Manchester by the Sea, he finally distinguishes himself as a class A actor.
The film stars Casey Affleck as Lee, a cranky and impatient apartment handyman who lives in one room while he maintains four buildings of apartments. The tenants range from young ladies that have the hots for him to the more obnoxious kind, one of which he tells to pretty much shove it, in the opening scene. In trouble and not seeming to care, he retreats to his apartment when he receives a phone call that his brother, Joe has died. Lee must travel to Manchester to bury him and settle his affairs. Upon arriving, Lee’s past which has never been far from Lee’s heart and mind, resurfaces and all of the pain and anguish he has kept bottled up starts to bubble up in the form of flashbacks. There are some good times, fishing with Joe and a young Patrick but a lot of bad times, too. People come and go. Marriages fall apart and then there is “the tragedy”.
As part of the will, Joe makes Lee the trustee of his estate and along with that he makes Lee the sole guardian of Joe’s seventeen year old son, Patrick. Lee is taken back and pretty stunned that this has all been left for him to sort out and not their parents who have moved to Minnesota. Unsure of what he is going to do, Lee spends the next week or so sorting things out but caring for a young man is not in his plans. Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is a high schooler, musician and quite the ladies man. He is a good kid, for the most part. But living with Lee is not going to be easy. Plus, there is “the tragedy” which is still lurking in the backround, punishing Lee around for most of his adult life. I will not divulge anything more about the plot, because this is a spoiler free review.
Casey Affleck is nothing short of tremendous in Manchester by the Sea. He is able to radiate pain, heartbreak and self loathing but it never seems forced or fake. You really feel for this guy who blames himself for a life of grief that he has brought on to his family. His ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams) still pines for him but has moved on, remarried and is pregnant by her new husband. Everything Lee sees is like salt in his wounds, but Affleck does a wonderful job of keeping Lee reserved, quiet and pensive. Affleck the odds-on favorite to win Best Actor for this performance and he is more than deserving. This is the best performance of his career.
Lucas Hedges is also terrific as Patrick. He pretty much encapsulates all of the angst a seventeen year old young man would have. He has difficulty processing his dad’s death, though and it puts him at odds with Lee. There is not one performance that seems odd or out of place in Manchester by the Sea. Everyone is solid and although she only has a couple of scenes, Michelle Williams is stunning as Randi. She is an emotional wreck, but once again, nothing is overdone with her performance. The supporting cast is standout with Gretchen Mol as Joe’s ex-wife who has married a minister (Matthew Broderick) but still can’t seem to shake her drinking problem. Kyle Chandler is great as Joe, who is a terrific brother to Lee. Chandler is an underrated actor who up until the last decade has not been in that much that was noticed. Finally, he is getting some great roles and his Joe, albeit small is pivotal in Manchester by the Sea.
Writer and director Kenneth Lonergan has written some good films, Gangs of New York, Analyze This and Margaret. He Has also written some not-so-good films like Analyze That and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (the live action version with Robert DeNiro and Piper Perabo). Manchester by the Sea is by far his best film. His script knows personal pain. He understands people, human nature and has a feel for how people think and talk. He has crafted a film that is stirring, emotionally powerful and moving. This is a great film, beautifully shot and directed and although this would be considered a “talky drama”, it is never boring or rigid. Lonergan has tapped into the psyche of human nature and understands how we act and react to life.
Manchester by the Sea is not an easy film to watch and when you see “the tragedy” that sets the course of events for the rest of the film, you will know why. This is not for everybody. It is a tough film to watch but it is worth every bit of your time, especially the final scene between Randi and Lee, in which Randi tries to reconcile. But if you can muster the strength to get through it, you will not be sorry.
Manchester by the Sea – ****3/4 out of 5
Manchester by the Sea – Rated R for language, nudity, brief violence and adult situations
Manchester by the Sea – Run Time is 137 minutes
Manchester by the Sea is now playing in theaters and on certain subscription services. Check your local listings for times and locations.