Living in the shadow of somebody else is nothing new to Casey Affleck, brother of Ben (of recent Caped Crusader fame). Despite excellent turns in The Assassination Of Jesse James and Out Of The Furnace, Casey has long played second fiddle to his precocious older brother. His character Lee in Manchester By The Sea is no stranger to being on the back foot either, even in himself – but the role finally affords Affleck place to turn out by far the best performance of his career – and finally step into the limelight.
Set in rustbelt Massachusetts, Manchester By The Sea is so full of twists and turns that it’s hard to write about without revealing the secrets it so carefully reveals throughout. Initially it seems appears to be something akin to last year’s sublime Patterson, with early, gently funny, scenes following janitor Lee as he ungracefully deals with the residents of the apartment block he’s tasked with maintaining. The premise begins to unfurl as Lee receives a phone call reporting the death of his brother Joe, and he races off to a neighbouring fishing town Manchester to view the body, and take care of his teenage son Patrick. By this point in any film you’d begin to feel settled into narrative whose trajectory you can likely predict the arc of… instead, expect to be upended time and time again.
Flashbacks are essential to the fabric of Kenneth Lonergan’s film; a filmic device which, no matter how enjoyable in themselves, often feel extraneous to the characterisation of characters we already feel we know. This is not the case in Manchester By The Sea, where characters are unceremoniously presented to us, and details of their lives prior to the opening of the film revealed at timely intervals throughout, providing context for actions that otherwise would have gone unexplained. One of these flashbacks feels underserved by the term as it’s so fundamental: uniquely it genuinely changes the entire movie in a few short minutes. What appeared a melancholic kitchen-sink drama reveals itself to be a tragedy of Greek proportions, told on the human plain. It’s a genuine gut punch, and pushes the ingenuity of the screenwriting to the fore in that everything that came before it only gains in clarity. This is no corny horror-movie reveal, although it’s implications are far darker than most scary-flicks would dare to dread.
Focussing on Affleck’s magnificent performance and the grand scale of the topics at hand is however. The beauty of Kenneth Lonergan’s script, and Jody Lee Lipes’ cinematography, is that the drama unfurls without great drama; at an everyday pace in an entirely recognisable suburban landscape. Affleck’s performance is great not because of it’s Oscar-bating red-eyed grandiosity but because of it’s subtly: an ideal portrayal of a quietly broken man. Such balance is found in every aspect of the film: it’s subject matter deals with something incomprehensible, but the film is never overbearing, frequently funny and always measured. Dark implications are matched with beautiful images of Manchester, where fishing boats represent an eroticised escape. Characterisations too are understated but remarkably effective; in such a short space building relationships with long histories which make almost every interaction between Lee, his nephew, his brother and his ex-wife so rewarding. The greatest testament to this is to recall the start of the film, where we assume Lee is a stoic loner quietly pottering for years in a dead end job. That the truth is so much different makes Manchester By The Sea a parable to never assuming, and always looking twice.
Words By Liam Inscoe – Jones