An absolutely superb central performance from Casey Affleck dominates Manchester by the Sea, a very effective low key slab of Oscar bait melancholia from writer/director Kenneth Lonergan.
What makes Affleck’s turn extraordinary is the way he plays two versions of the same character before and after a hugely tragic incident, the nature of which lurks in the background before being fully revealed. In flashback we see Affleck’s character Lee Chandler with his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and their three children, and here he is a good parent and loving husband, albeit one with irresponsible man-child flaws. In the present, he is withdrawn, socially awkward and prone to irrationally starting bar fights, clearly as a result of the eventually revealed trauma.
Affleck’s performance isn’t merely about facial expressions, but his stance, the way he walks, the way he completely embodies both versions of the character in subtle, fascinating and wholly convincing ways. It could be Affleck’s finest performance to date (although I think his turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford still might just clinch it for me).
In the present timeline, following the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee discovers unbeknownst to him he has become the guardian of Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). He doesn’t want the responsibility, but an odd-couple bond gradually develops between them, forming the central thrust of the narrative.
The dark humour in Lee and Patrick’s relationship subtly keeps melodrama at bay in what is, after all, a potentially depressing story. However, I didn’t find it depressing. On the contrary I found this an offbeat but surprisingly compassionate, humane, honest piece of work about that most relevant of themes: the human condition. I should add warnings for bad language and some sexual themes, but none of that seemed out of context.
Lonergan’s direction is understated and unfussy. He uses wintry locations to very good effect, particularly shivering seascapes that for all their bleakness have a beauty to them. It is also worth praising the supporting cast, particularly Michelle Williams (whose scenes feel a little truncated), and Lucas Hedges. In the end however, this is definitely Affleck’s movie. His performance has lingered in my mind to the point where I would describe it as haunting. I think an Oscar nomination is certain, and a win likely.