Set not down the M61, but in and around the titular coastal community in Essex County, Massachusetts, Manchester By The Sea eloquently explores universal themes of grief, guilt and sexual awakening through the eyes of a 40-year-old handyman whose outlook on life is as threadbare and tattered as the winter jacket he wears atop his overalls.
Lonergan sketches his internally conflicted central character with patience and precision, gifting a peach of a role to Casey Affleck, who seems destined to triumph at this year’s Oscars for his nuanced, emotionally raw portrayal of a man who has been battered and bruised by the past.
Every close-up of Affleck’s eyes, glistening with regret, tug at the heartstrings until the sense of loss and abandonment becomes almost intolerable.
Men of few words are the best men and in Lonergan’s lean script, his characters frequently say everything with a mournful stare or hesitant attempt at consolation.
Lee Chandler (Affleck) works as a janitor in a small apartment building in Chicago, where his chores include shovelling snow, changing lightbulbs and unblocking toilets of emotionally needy women.
It’s an unedifying existence and Lee unfairly channels his resentment at the tenants.
Out of the blue, Lee receives a telephone call from family friend George (CJ Wilson).
His older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has suffered a heart attack.
By the time Lee arrives at the hospital, Joe has passed and the younger sibling must break the tragic news to his truculent 16-year-old nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges).
A meeting with family lawyer Wes (Josh Hamilton) reveals that Joe named Lee as Patrick’s legal guardian.
“It was supposed to be my Uncle Donny. I was just the back-up,” mumbles Lee, who is reluctant to be a parent again after the breakdown of his marriage to Randi (Michelle Williams).
Lee and his teenager ward muddle through grief and misunderstanding as they make preparations for Joe’s funeral including a chance for Patrick to say farewell to his father at the mortuary.
“What does he look like?” asks the 16-year-old.
“He looks like he’s dead,” responds Lee.
Manchester By The Sea is anchored by Affleck’s understated yet devastating portrayal, and the touching on-screen chemistry with co-star Hedges.
Awkwardness between the generations is perfectly conveyed in Lonergan’s dialogue, like when Patrick has a tense reconciliation with his mother Elise (Gretchen Mol) and her devoutly religious new partner (Matthew Broderick).
“What was the guy like?” asks Lee during the drive home.
“He was very Christian,” deadpans the teenager.
Co-star Williams is a potent maternal force in her few scenes, desperate to salve the deep wounds of an accidental and tragic past.
At 137 minutes, Lonergan’s film does feel slightly overlong. Self-realisation, if it ever comes, takes time.