Review: ‘Manchester by the Sea’ is as Subtle as it is Shattering

For an Oscar hopeful, writer/director Kenneth (You Can Count On Me, Margaret) Lonergan’s wry, wrenching drama begins in about as mundane a manner as can be.

In a role earmarked for Matt Damon, who produces, Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a glum Boston janitor for whom beer and bar fights provide life’s only fleeting pleasures. Think: Good Will Hunting, sans mates and maths.

When his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) dies, Lee is called back to his hometown, the eponymous Massachusetts port, to play guardian to his 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), even though – as Lee protests -“I’m just the back up.” There’s no easy redemption here, and the pair’s interactions are alternately frosty, funny and awkward, with Lee’s depressed diffidence threatening to suffocate the whole film – until, that is, what’s really wrong becomes apparent.

As a broken man trapped in a situation he can’t shrug or slug his way out of, Affleck has never been better. Hedges, who looks just like Damon, excels as his horny, angry charge. And Michelle Williams, as Lee’s ex-wife Randi, makes a no-doubt Oscar-winning impression in just a handful of heartfelt scenes. Lonergan, meanwhile, makes clever use of disarming details – mumbled miscommunications, misfiring props, a misplaced car – to undercut any melodrama.

What emerges is as subtle as it is shattering: ordinary, unshowy and, underneath, red raw with real feelings. If, as one critic noted, Lee has no Good Will Hunting-style “It’s not your fault” moment, that’s because, a) life’s never that simple, and b) it’s just not that type of film.

‘Manchester by the Sea’ Movie Times