Casey Affleck Owns Bleak "Manchester By The Sea"

With a little studio interference, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By The Sea” might have gone something like this: “Mark Wahlberg stars as a wayward, middle-aged Bostonian tasked with caring for his plucky, precocious nephew after the boy’s father dies suddenly. In their pain they find hope and in one another they find themselves, sharing a surprising number of laughs along the way.” Think “The Pursuit Of Happyness” on anabolic steroids; “St. Vincent” on amphetamines.

Lonergan has not made that movie.

His version of “Manchester,” an indie lapped up by Amazon Studios at Sundance, features a guilt-racked failure of a lead character in Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) with an unlikable, duplicitous teen named Patrick (Lucas Hedges) for a nephew, each contending with inhospitably dark corners of their minds on a second-by-second basis. And yet, among some of the grimmest thematic material of the year, there exists some of those same feel-good moments and disarming laughs mentioned above, straight out of the bad version of the movie. Only here, they feel gotten, with Lonergan effortlessly pinpointing the commonalities between pain and humor.

It starts with misdirection. For nearly an hour we’re not privy the gravity of Lee’s situation. Living alone in a tiny Quincy studio, he works as a jack-of-all-trades in an apartment building, unclogging toilets and plugging leaks for its ungrateful tenants. Cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes’ no-nonsense photography immediately establishes the starkness of Lee Chandler’s world; that there will be no unearned feel-good-isms within. Soon, Lee gets the call. His brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) is in cardiac arrest, dropped by a known heart problem. Lee quietly reels, immediately making the hour-long drive to Manchester-by-the-Sea township.

Joe is dead. After an obligatory powwow with Joe’s doctors and family friend George (C.J. Wilson), Lee lead elects to head to the basement to see his brother’s body. As our lead rides the elevator down, Lonergan employs one of many extensive flashbacks, depicting life with Joe, foreshadowing his request that the Quincy custodian take custodianship of his son Patrick – not the boy’s alcoholic mother. Lee kisses his brother’s still warm forehead and cries softly. The scene is devastatingly realistic and sad; herein the film’s only major flaw begins to take hold.

Affleck is acting circles around everyone else. Not even the wonderful Michelle Williams, who plays Lee’s ex-wife mostly in flashbacks, can keep up with the “Gone Baby Gone” star’s dazzling, emotionally excavatory portrayal of a man in a constant state of mourning. Affleck is Kenneth Lonergan’s luck and curse, bringing out the microscopic details in the writer-director’s story with the ease of pulling a lever, all while unintentionally shaming everyone else for not being so marvelous.

One caveat: multiple sexual harassment accusations against the actor have recently surfaced and gone woefully under-reported (as opposed to Nate Parker, whose “The Birth Of A Nation” Oscar chances were torpedoed by reports of his questionable past). It’s an ugly endnote on an otherwise superstar-making performance, and since Affleck’s performance stings of self-flagellation, it’s harder than usual to separate art from artist. Nevertheless, it’s one of the year’s two or three best performances.

As soon as Lee and Patrick are thrown into the mix together as uncle and nephew-turned-ward, the film turns from tearjerker to weapons-grade tragedy, likely to buck a certain percentage of viewers along the way. No matter. The story’s twists and turns are so much more than twists and turns, providing some of the richest emotional terrain an actor could hope to mine – only without clichés! And with a star insistent on underplaying a role that could have so easily been overplayed! It’s a minor miracle.

Hedges’ performance is also deserving of special mention. Among a cast of veteran actors, it’s the relative newbie that comes closest to matching Affleck’s brilliance. The young actor ably captures the general misanthropy of those damned teenage years that so often goes ignored in movies, while juggling repressed feelings concerning his father’s death. Hedges gets what’s arguably the most heartbreaking line of dialogue in a film full of heartbreak, and lands it like a pro.

Even though the movie is ultimately about the relationship between uncle and nephew, no one will confuse it with a crowd-pleaser. Even if it kind of is one by accident. The fate of Joe’s fishing boat – gifted to his son, the most ill-equipped party to care for it – is the only story element that broaches weepy melodrama, and even then, it serviceably bookends the film, tying a bow on the past, present, and future of these characters.

What Kenneth Lonergan has done with “Manchester By The Sea” is more than just a victory of writing and directing. It’s a triumph of besting the system, making the exact movie he wanted to make – a borderline traumatizing family drama – and parlaying it into a bona fide multiplex hit. Led by Affleck’s superior performance, the movie is an obvious awards season frontrunner, a bandwagon nearly filled. Get on board.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: November 18, 2016 (Limited)
Studio: Amazon Studios
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Screenwriter: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Lucas Hedges, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, C.J. Wilson, Matthew Broderick
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout and some sexual content)