Casey Affleck is remarkable as Lee Chandler, full to the brim with bottled-up pain, in this masterful drama (trailer), written and directed by playwright Kenneth Lonergan. You don’t learn the source of his hostile and erratic behavior until a good way in, although multiple flashbacks to earlier, happier times with his older brother Joe and nephew Patrick show different sides of this character—never easy, perhaps, but not a hand grenade with the pin pulled.
The film opens with Lee tending his duties as the maintenance man—and first-line-of-defense against chaos—for four Quincy, Massachusetts, apartment buildings and living in a one-room basement flat in one of them. He has exiled himself from his home town of Manchester by the Sea and the seacoast life there, putting all of metro Boston in between him and his past. (MBTS sounds like the setting for a Victorian novel, but it’s located on Cape Ann, about halfway between Gloucester and Beverly, Mass.)
One wintry day—the weather in this movie is as frozen and blustery as Lee is—he receives a call that Joe has had another cardiac episode and heads north for Manchester. When he reaches the hospital, Joe has died, and he’s been given guardianship of the now teenage Patrick. Forms must be followed, arrangements made, and the funeral survived.
All this brings Lee abruptly into contact with his past. Being in Manchester isn’t easy—too many memories, too many people who know him, too many who remember. But he needs to look after his high school Lothario nephew Patrick, so he sticks it out. Says Matthew Lickona from the San Diego Reader, “It’s Affleck’s movie to quietly own as layer upon layer of Irish impassivity is stripped away from his visage until the unspeakable can be spoken.”
There were no cheap or cheesy moments in this layered tale, thanks to Lonergan’s superb writing. His people aren’t always easy to get along with. Their marriages don’t always work. Their kids aren’t perfect. Yet, there can be hidden strengths in relationships, and sometimes, some people do their best, even when the going is hard.
Top-notch performances all around. Besides Affleck, there are Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife Randi, Kyle Chandler as Joe, Gretchen Mol as Joe’s ex, Elise, and C. J. Wilson as the brothers’ stalwart friend George. Lucas Hedges is terrific as Patrick.
Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 96%; audiences: 82%.