Move over Ben Affleck, your brother Casey has a serious case of major acting chops. It will be no surprise if the younger of the Affleck brothers gets awards nominations galore for his heart-wrenching portrayal of Lee Chandler, a taciturn handyman/ janitor wallowing in a toxic soup of deep anguish, manifesting itself as occasional unbridled anger. Let’s cut to the chase: Manchester by the Sea, opening Nov. 18, could be the most depressing film I have ever seen.
The bleak winter landscapes, awkward moments, and documentary-esque conversations are all perfectly captured by director Kenneth Lonergan. In fact, at times you might be apt to look at your watch and think, “when the hell can I get out of here and get a drink?” And yet, it is also a triumph of acting and a cry for … hope? Redemption? Forgiveness? Rescue by love?
When we meet Lee (played by Affleck), it’s obvious he has a chip on his shoulder, but we don’t yet know why. He tells a plumbing client to f**k off. He picks bar fights for no reason. He avoids any meaningful interaction and seems content to fall asleep on his basement apartment couch watching TV. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat. But there is something about Lee that makes you want to take care of him, root for him like you would cheer for a stray, abused dog to find a welcoming home.
One dreary Boston day as he’s shoveling snow, Lee gets a call that his older brother Joe (played by Kyle Chandler) is in the hospital after a massive heart attack. After a long, bleak drive to Manchester, the small Massachusetts fishing town where he grew up, Lee finds that Joe has passed away, and we soon discover that Lee hasn’t come back to this town for good reason. Flashbacks with he and his ex-wife Randi (a superb Michelle Williams) shed light on that decision, as we learn about an horrific tragedy—the kind that scars one for life and causes one to become a sort of zombie, a shell of a man who has been drained of all his emotions.
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After his brother’s death, Lee is handed over the guardianship of his nephew Patrick, (played by the talented Lucas Hedges) a self-absorbed teen obsessed with hockey, sex and rock ‘n roll, (in no particular order) and whose father’s death has yet to fully hit him.
For a while, you think that perhaps Patrick’s hedonism (and then his sorrow) will snap Lee back into reality—maybe even make him feel that life is worth living again. Eh, not really. While he takes his new ward seriously and seems to want to be a good role model, it doesn’t really seem to affect his mental state which traverses the depressingly narrow range from indifference to numbness to anger.
I wish I could say that Lee’s soul gets saved—somehow lifted even from this wreckage by love, but … not really. Still, this is a moving and truthful examination of one family’s sorrow and dysfunction and their resigned acceptance that some losses can never be replaced.
Watch the official trailer above and catch the movie, in theaters starting today.