Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Casey Affleck manages to bring an understated performance to a movie set in Massachusetts; for that alone, he’ll rightfully receive an Oscar nomination for best actor. For every “The Town” and “Good Will Hunting” there is now, mercifully, “Manchester by the Sea,” a film with just enough humor to keep its haunting themes at bay.
Affleck, as Lee Chandler, returns to Manchester, Massachusetts upon the death of his older brother, Joe, to sort out his affairs. The most important of these affairs is Joe’s only son, a red-haired 16-year-old boy named Patrick (played by Lucas Hedges, and yes, I know). Joe arranged for Lee to move back to Manchester from Boston (unbeknownst to Lee), where Lee has been living in exile for a decade.
Not to spoil anything, but I feel comfortable sharing this doesn’t go quite as predictably as you might think. Yes, Affleck and Hedges go through the sarcastic back and forth you’ve seen in the trailers and it brings much-needed levity to what circumstantially and thematically is a pretty dark movie.
It turns out Affleck fled to Boston following a tragedy of his own making and his reluctance to return to Manchester on a permanent basis is directly connected to that. Following a night of partying he accidentally set his home on fire, killing his three children while he and his now ex-wife survived. In truth, Affleck died that night, too.
He works as a handyman in Boston and the film opens with him going through his day, mostly silent in the way he goes through most of his films. Affleck plays a troubled man better than most. He wears scruff well, has sad eyes and perpetually looks like he’s on his third beer. People probably think he’s a great listener because he doesn’t talk much, but my guess is he doesn’t retain information particularly well either.
That makes the role of Lee a good fit for Affleck. He raises his voice occasionally and plays a stubborn yet caring man well. You can root for both Affleck and Hedges despite both being deeply flawed people. Affleck’s mistakes are his and his flaws are his. Hedges has two girlfriends, which the film tries to play off as a quirk to be chuckled off and not something to be abhorred. They both have attitude problems.
In that way, they make a good pair. That’s the idea. Affleck needs Hedges more than the other way around, which does set “Manchester” into the “man raised by child” genre; so if that’s not your cup of tea, you might be best off skipping this. But if you love Affleck, broken families and living ghosts, this is for you.