Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me, Margaret) reaches what might be the height of his powers with this gripping, tremendously emotional and achingly human drama that features as its center-piece a masterfully subdued performance from Casey Affleck.
Following the sudden death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), Lee Chandler (Affleck) returns to his titular hometown to put Joe’s affairs in order and temporarily care for his son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), while reconnecting with his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams).
There are probably two-dozen versions of this movie that would end up convoluted, overwrought and over-acted, but if Lonergan is a dab-hand at anything, it’s creating fleshed-out, believable characters experiencing emotional turmoil that the audience themselves must then process.
It would be indecent to say much of what truly tortures Lee throughout the movie, but it’s revealed in a startling fashion that teases melodrama – accompanied by an over-eager Lesley Barber score – yet largely just enhances the grand emotional canvas Lonergan paints with, as if the death of a sibling isn’t anguish enough.
This is not a film filled with positive emotions even if there is unexpected humour in the most downbeat of scenarios, yet it is a deeply empathetic film that considers a litany of personal strife, some of it relatable to all if not most of us, some of it absolutely unconscionable but no less effective.
Lonergan is in no rush to tell his story, and in allowing the film to breathe allows Affleck to tease out a deliberate, restrained performance of grand emotional depth, much of it told in facial expressions and, of course, his signature soft-speaking voice. Finding an Oscar reel clip for the actor may be a tough feat given how lacking in Big Acting his work is, but that does nothing to impact the performance.
Michelle Williams is also sublime in a much smaller role than you might expect given the tidal wave of Oscar buzz for her work, while young Lucas Hedges is remarkable as the lynch-pin around which the film revolves, and Kyle Chandler makes the most of his brief flashback appearances, painfully exemplifying the void his absence creates.
A deeply delicate handling of myriad difficult topics, Manchester by the Sea benefits from Lonergan’s typically astute writing and direction, and in Casey Affleck discovers one of the year’s most fascinatingly engineered performances.
Manchester by the Sea is in US cinemas November 18th and UK cinemas January 13th