Casey Affleck has quietly avoided the mainstream throughout most of his career, but has consistently delivered excellent yet underrated turns that seem to slip under the radar. This is set to change thanks to family drama Manchester by the Sea, the latest feature from writer and director Kenneth Lonergan. Taking its name from the small scenic Massachusetts town in which it is set, the story follows lowly and lonely janitor Lee Chandler (Affleck) who is forced to return to his roots when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) passes away. As the legal guardian of nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), he offers his help and support whilst he wrestles with personal demons from his past that come back to haunt him.
The stripped back and simple tone that is adopted works well with a downcast narrative of this ilk. Lonergan’s direction never feels laboured or overly sentimental which is admirable given the morbid subject matter. With very little movement of the camera, he carefully crafts each frame and lets the plot unravel with a deft realism, the heartache of loss combining with a darkly authentic streak of humour. Flashbacks are implemented which masterfully exemplify how events can completely transform a person, and the non-linearity of the film’s structure elevates Affleck’s incredible acting. The orchestral score from Lesley Barber does occasionally become quite overbearing, and the heavy-handedness of the music creates a conflict against the potent subtlety of the storytelling.
As the development of the plot picks apart the back-story of the tragic central character, Affleck’s nuanced, multi-layered performance takes shape. From physical awkwardness to social insecurity, he portrays a broken soul perfectly with emptiness behind his eyes. There’s an exchange with ex-wife Randi, who is played superbly by the always brilliant Michelle Williams, that is probably the most emotionally-charged scene you will see all year. Lee’s on-screen bond with his wise-cracking sarcastic nephew adds yet another dimension as the pair unite in their struggle to cope, Hedges impressively supplying the moments of comedy that strangely compliment the tragedy.
With its minimalistic cinematic approach, Manchester by the Sea manages to tell a heartrending story with maximum impact. Lonergan’s precise filmmaking, both in the script and the visuals, is cleverly geared towards the performance of Casey Affleck, which doesn’t for one second fail to deliver. With the alarmingly understated ability to make the viewer laugh one minute and come close to tears the next, this film’s steadfast exploration of life and loss will leave audiences reeling.