Everyone in Hollywood knows that if you want some good jaw-clenching you go to an Affleck brother. To older brother Ben for the big budget moves, for a chin dimple that looks good in a bow-tie or Batsuit. And to younger brother Casey for something a little more low key. Casey may have the jaw that is less defiantly handsome, a chin that is a little smaller, weaker and more upturned, but that jaw’s acting skills in Manchester By The Sea are off the charts.
As Lee, a man withdrawn and weighed down by grief amid the beautiful but bitter frost of a coastal Massachusetts town, Affleck’s Oscar glory seems assured, particularly following his Golden Globe win. There’s a single scene, with Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife Randy, that could win awards all by itself, where she talks and cries and meanwhile Affleck barely says a word, casting his sad eyes to the horizon, desperately shifting his chin this way and that, looking for an exit. He doesn’t have the words. He is adrift.
Why? We find out in flashbacks. In the present, Lee is a janitor at some housing blocks in Boston. By day he unclogs tenants’ loos and scrapes snow from the porch. By night, he goes to bars alone and looks for men to fight. Then he gets a call you know he has been expecting: his brother Joe has died. He drives up to his hometown, Manchester in Essex County, an idyllic little place with pastel houses and boats bobbing on the water, a bright sun always trying to break through the biting cold. His gawky teenage nephew Patrick, played brilliantly by Lucas Hedges, is there, and loner Lee finds himself unwittingly and unwillingly responsible for him.
Both written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan of Gangs of New York fame, Manchester By The Sea has a light touch and intermittent whimsy that make the blackness bearable. Patrick and Lee develop an almost fraternal relationship, sharing insults and wisecracks amid the bureaucracy of loss. ‘I don’t see the humour’, Patrick’s mum grumbles in a flashback as her husband clowns around in a hospital bed. Matthew Broderick appears later as her wonderfully awkward new husband, cracking bad stepdad jokes.
The film is beautifully, often classically, scored throughout, with a stunning a cappella theme that lends events a more hopeful tone than they might otherwise have. But as the flashbacks build towards the central tragedy that has made Lee what he is, the score turns darker. Albinoni’s Adagio has acted as a portent of doom many times in cinema but never before have I found it quite so apt. When the strings arrive with their terrible melancholy, you will long to unsee what Lee has seen.
This is not a story that ties things up neatly with a bow; it depends so much on the unsaid that Affleck’s understated and incredibly moving performance carries the film, admittedly with the help of his excellent co-stars Hedges and Williams. And, of course, that jaw.