The drab, dreary, dark days of winter are the perfect time to see this downbeat, heartbreaking film about one man’s battle with his demons.
That man is Lee (Casey Affleck), a once happily married father who liked nothing better than going fishing with his big brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and drinking beer with the boys.
All that changes one night when Lee makes a fatal error in judgement and loses everything that makes his life worthwhile. Now he’s a lost soul, existing rather than living in a town where no one knows him or his past, and losing himself in alcohol. His life takes a further lurch into despair when Joe dies of a heart attack leaving Lee as the guardian of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). He has to move back to the seaside town where he grew up and where his life changed forever to look after Patrick. It’s also where his ex-wife is about to have a baby with her new partner – more agony for him to bear.
Patrick’s at an awkward age and feels no connection to his uncle while Lee, having lost so much, has no wish to form relationships that might leave him open to further pain in the future. They try their hardest to act normally with each other but their awkward exchanges are full of things unsaid and feelings unexpressed. Even a boat trip, echoing outings from their shared past, cannot rekindle the bond between them.
Affleck gives an incredibly nuanced performance here – darkness and self-disgust seem to exist within the hollow shell of a man who says little and interacts with the world even less. Just as impressive is Michelle Williams as his ex-wife Randi. Although she’s as overwhelmed by events as he has been she at least appears to still be alive while he has died inside.
There are some almost unbearably poignant moments in Manchester by the Sea and director/writer Kenneth Lonergan pares things down so what you see are the raw emotions – there are no fancy locations or artsy camera moves or soaring musical score. And there’s certainly no tacked on, feel-good ending.
It’s not an easy watch but it contains some of the best, most affecting performances you’ll probably see all year.