Cold wind blows
Living in the aftermath of a storm of human tragedy
Late in this fascinatingly offbeat drama, Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams have a truly extraordinary scene in which their respective characters clamber through a set of emotionally fraught moments that neither of them can fully face up to and neither of them can really turn away from.
It’s the film’s biggest emotional moment, and it’s built on a stunningly modest foundation—both characters are immersed in a kind of impassioned miscommunication, but the flurry of half-formed rejoinders and disrupted thoughts conveys much more, emotionally and otherwise, than the characters’ actual words can express.
Indirect expressiveness of that sort is central to the methods of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me, Margaret), and his Manchester by the Sea puts that approach to warmly effective use. The story in this case focuses in particular on the Affleck character, a rather solitary working man named Lee Chandler who we first see living in Boston and working as an apartment house janitor.
When his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies suddenly, Lee is drawn back to his coastal hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea and into the dramas and tragedies of his much-beleaguered family and his own very conflicted past. And perhaps the biggest challenge of all comes in the discovery that brother Joe’s will names Lee as the guardian of his teen-age son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
The mutually mixed emotions in the hit-and-miss relationship of Lee and Patrick provide a particularly lively thread of low-key character drama as Manchester by the Sea expands into the further reaches of the past calamities and breakdowns that haunt Lee’s family. Lee’s ex-wife, Randi (Williams), is conspicuous by her absence until her funereal reunion with what’s left of the Chandler family edges toward unexpected significance. Joe’s ex-wife, Elise (Gretchen Mol), has absented herself most conspicuously from the family, and from son Patrick, and her conflicted efforts at return play out as a kind of tragicomedy.
Lee remains central throughout, but Affleck’s performance—for which he just won the Golden Globe for Best Actor—Drama—is also brilliantly in tune with the film’s abiding sense of the loose ends and insoluble tangles in all human drama.