By Laurie Coker
It could have been easy for actor Casey Affleck to fall under the shadow of his brother Ben, and for a time, it looked like he might, but in his latest film Manchester by the Sea, Affleck demonstrates why we should stand up and take notice. The tone of Manchester by the Sea might be bleak, but Affleck’s performance is one of the best and brightest of the year. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s tale of one man’s struggle to find his way radiates from the screen in mesmerizing hues of gray, touching on life in a way that, while depressing, is revealing of the themes of grief, obligation. and denunciation.
Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a janitor and loner living in Boston, miles from family. He longs to be invisible. We cannot help but take notice of him and his notable self-loathing. It is not that Lee, or Affleck, seethes emotion, but rather it is the way that he does not that makes his character and Affleck’s portrayal so awe-inspiring. Lee embodies downtrodden and lost, and we see every difficulty and personal injury in his face. Lee Chandler is a complex character, a man who has a dead end job, who drinks until he is nearly senseless and picks fights at no provocation. He spits obscenities at clients and quarrels with his boss. Lee seems to hate the world and all of those who inhabit it, even himself. His older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), after being diagnosed with a terminal disease, puts Lee in charge of his teenage son, Patrick and his trust, upon his death – a job Lee does not want.
Lonergan peels back the layers of Lee Chandler in his story and brings out the best in Affleck. Michelle Williams, playing Lee’s ex-wife, Randi, for the little time she is on screen, delivers with the same passion. Williams’ is a unique talent and she steals scenes – almost from Affleck too. The history of the two characters sheds light on Chandler’s temperament and adds depth and dimension – provided though propitious flashbacks and perfect pacing. Events in Lee’s past have driven him into seclusion and his brother’s death pulls him out – into a place where he must reflect and come to terms with the devastating events that darkened his life.
Much of Lonergan’s tale follow Lee as he tends to Patrick’s needs – driving him to school, taking him to friend’s house and dealing with his dad’s death, but we watch as Lee agonizes over the life he has been dealt. Manchester by the Sea feels bleak and Lonergan’s New England looks the part. Casey Affleck’s intuitive performance as the story’s lead character lifts the film to excellence and anchors the ship solidly in the waters of real life emotions. He and each of the film’s key players deliver outstanding performances. For Affleck, this is his best portrayal thus far, and one can only hope, if he wins an Oscar, that he doesn’t fall back by taking roles that include sled dogs or kittens. I am placing an A in my grade book. Manchester by the Sea earns this for its lead and ensemble cast, no argument.