There’s distinct danger in the bluing of an Essex County sky, a spectral rumble more gossamer than soapy dishwater. Director Kenneth Lonergan doesn’t rack the shotgun when it comes to weather as motif, but in his latest film, “Manchester by the Sea”, you know its there in both indifference and might. The surface of the Atlantic Ocean ebbs and flows in a sun shellacked white, the color of vanilla cake frosting. Later, snow sets like wet cement around aching houses. In Boston, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is bedraggled and short tempered. Cynicism and vinegar course through his veins. Working as a janitor, he’s curt, unsentimental, and vehemently petulant. The city has helped blacksmith him into a salt of the earth, barley soaked working class man. And so when his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) unexpectedly passes, there is little emotional fuel in the reserves to help him emote.
Lee stuffs his hands into his jackets, represses the ire, and assesses the hand he was given with a tar smeared expression of exhaust. When staring at his cold brother’s body in the morgue, Lee tilts his head, gears crunching, attempting to unearth the appropriate response. Our protagonist is quiet, but ready to buck like a horse’s hind legs, especially when he realizes that he must look after his brother’s son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), after the devastating loss.
Casey Affleck’s presence in “Manchester by the Sea” is heavier than a cinder block, but it also carries sympathetic nuances. There’s both granite dust and warmth in this performance. Lonergan’s script requires complexity, frayed emotions, and a wind swept uncertainty. And Affleck ticks every possible box. The actor hasn’t been this good since “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”. The lithe, jittery mannerisms of the Massachusetts native are nowhere to be found. There’s no nervous mirth or staccato joy. Lee Chandler cuts like a bone saw.
“Manchester by the Sea” understands the slivers of light in an empty room. The stubborn frost on an idle windshield. The unshakable realities of family under duress. Michelle Williams unspools in a heap of grief. Lucas Hedges bounds from scene to scene in believable tension and incertitude. Casey Affleck mines for every ounce of oil he can find inside of his frame, and delivers everything he has to one of the year’s best roles. Lonergan posits many questions over the film’s running time, but the dubiety of life supersedes them all. “Manchester by the Sea” is one for the ages.