Though this Oscar-tipped film from writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me, Margaret) is named after a scenic seaside town near Boston, Massachusetts, the drama that unfolds is anything but pretty. Featuring a haunting lead performance from Casey Affleck, Ben’s hitherto less celebrated younger brother, Manchester By The Sea is a powerful exploration of bereavement’s effect on the human psyche.
When we meet Lee Chandler (Affleck), he’s living a solitary and pretty grim-looking life as a Boston apartment block janitor: by day, he does odd jobs for people he never bonds with; by night, he drinks alone at a local bar. But when his older brother (Bloodline‘s Kyle Chandler) passes away unexpectedly, Lee returns to his hometown of his Manchester-by-the-Sea to look after his teenage nephew Patrick (BAFTA rising star nominee Lucas Hedges). Here Lee is forced to confront a terrible tragedy from his past and reconnect with Randi (Blue Valentine‘s Michelle Williams), the ex-wife from whom it ripped him apart.
Affleck’s portrayal of Lee has deservedly made him a favourite to take home the Best Actor prize at this year’s Academy Awards. Cold, catatonic and crumpled, this is a man who has been fully suffocated by a toxic combination of grief and guilt. Though Lee carries out his job competently, he can barely handle a basic human interaction. When Patrick asks him to chat to his girlfriend’s mother so the two teenagers can enjoy some privacy upstairs, the conversation soon becomes so strained that the mother rushes upstairs to interrupt the young lovebirds mid-coitus.
Lonergan’s film is far too smart, gritty and real to offer some kind of redemption for Lee, but the thick grey fog that hangs over his life eventually lets in some light. A scene in which Williams’ Randi apologises for the lack of empathy she showed him at his lowest ebb, which finally compels Lee to show some emotion, is devastatingly effective. It’s a shame her character doesn’t feature a little more prominently, but this is hardly enough to spoil a searingly sad and sometimes unbearably bleak film which gnaws at you long after the credits roll.