DI­REC­TOR Ken­neth Lon­er­gan CAST Casey Af­fleck, Kyle Chan­dler, Lu­cas Hedges, Michelle Wil­liams

PLOT Scratch­ing out a liv­ing as a handy­man in Bos­ton, Lee Chan­dler (Af­fleck) is sud­denly called back to his home town on the Mas­sachusetts coast by the death of his brother (Chan­dler). This loss re­turns him to the scene of an even greater grief, threat­en­ing to tip him over the edge for good.

“SOME FILMS YOU watch,” hailed Or­di­nary Peo­ple’s poster back in 1980, “oth­ers you feel.” By that same tagline logic, Manch­ester By The Sea, an­other story of grief and loss, is a film you get socked hard in the chops by. It’s an emo­tional tour de force by a film­maker and writer, Ken­neth Lon­er­gan, who draws a ca­reer-best per­for­mance from Casey Af­fleck and lays to rest the frus­tra­tions and false starts of his last film, lit­i­ga­tion-mired drama Mar­garet. Some­how, you emerge en­riched, if a lit­tle bruised, by the ex­pe­ri­ence.

Like Or­di­nary Peo­ple, Robert Red­ford’s Best Pic­ture win­ner, Lon­er­gan’s film tack­les the heav­i­est of themes, un­bear­able per­sonal tragedy and guilt, although with a no­tably lighter touch. For ev­ery mo­ment of heart­break, ev­ery quiet ges­ture of un­speak­able sor­row, there’s a sharply judged laugh or killer put-down. It’s gritty and of­ten dev­as­tat­ing, sure, but soul­ful and sur­pris­ingly funny with it. It might just be bound for Os­cars, too.

We meet its cen­tral fig­ure, Af­fleck’s hunched, dole­ful di­vorcee Lee Chan­dler, shov­el­ling snow, clear­ing drains and deal­ing with the tetchy, de­mand­ing res­i­dents of a Bos­ton ten­e­ment. He lives in a box room and picks drunken fights in non­de­script bars. He’s a man do­ing penance in a pur­ga­tory of blocked loos and black eyes. News of his older brother’s death, how­ever, soon sends him back to Manch­ester, a sea­side town an hour up the coast and the site of a loss so pro­found and in­ex­press­ible, no-one even men­tions it. Only the side­ways glances and whis­pered asides of lo­cals hint at the mag­ni­tude of what passed. He’s no longer Lee Chan­dler here; he’s the Lee Chan­dler.

Us­ing flash­backs that bring warmer shades to the leeched-out, win­try frames, Lon­er­gan in­tro­duces the past play­ers in Lee’s drama. His wife, Michelle Wil­liams’ smart, sparky Randi, com­pletes a do­mes­tic idyll of play­ful rough­hous­ing and happy kids. His older sib­ling Joe, played with gruff warmth by Kyle Chan­dler, is di­ag­nosed with a ter­mi­nal heart con­di­tion in a hi­lar­i­ously dys­func­tional fam­ily gath­er­ing at his hos­pi­tal bed­side. The two broth­ers con­tinue to take to New Eng­land wa­ters on Joe’s boat, tak­ing turns to spook Joe’s young son Pa­trick (in flash­back played by Ben O’brien) with un­con­vinc­ing tales of schools of killer sharks be­neath. What none of them know is that, in ev­ery­day life, there are even greater per­ils lurk­ing just un­der the sur­face.

The ex­act scale and cir­cum­stance of Lee’s tragedy is fi­nally laid bare in a truly har­row­ing scene. It’s a typ­i­cally un­der­stated se­quence — this is not a film that milks its twists for dra­matic im­pact — and all the more dev­as­tat­ing for it, with Lon­er­gan’s cam­era fo­cus­ing on the faces of by­standers as the emer­gency ser­vices buzz around them. It’s a smart nar­ra­tive de­vice, too. For the viewer, fi­nally dealt into this hith­erto un­spo­ken catas­tro­phe, there’s new­found un­der­stand­ing of Lee; a surge of in­sight into his state of mind.

Up­lift comes in the shape of an odd-cou­ple re­la­tion­ship with his nephew Pa­trick (Lu­cas Hedges), now 19 years old and, thanks to a shock clause in Joe’s will, his ward. New­comer Hedges is ter­rific, a funny and warm foil for a man who’s lost his abil­ity to re­late. He shoots the shit with his friends about Star Trek, plays in a punk band, and awk­wardly asks Lee if his girl­friend can stay over. “Am I sup­posed to tell you to use a con­dom?” comes the puz­zled re­sponse. Pa­trick masks his own grief much bet­ter than his un­cle, un­til it fi­nally pours out when a freezer spillage sparks a panic at­tack. Typ­i­cally, Lee mis­in­ter­prets it. “If you’re go­ing to freak out ev­ery time you see a frozen chicken,” he of­fers, “I think we should go to hos­pi­tal.” Emo­tion­ally tone deaf as they are, it’s in these tiny mo­ments that you can feel Lee’s sense of self inch­ing back.

Af­fleck is rev­e­la­tory in a role once ear­marked for Matt Da­mon (who, with John Krasin­ski, orig­i­nated the project). In one un­for­get­table, sear­ing scene, al­ready one of 2017’s best, he and the ter­rific Wil­liams try to bridge the ocean that’s opened be­tween them, only to find the dis­tance too great. In a ca­reer full of stal­wart work, Manch­ester By The Sea is the per­fect show­case for his full range. From play­ful and bois­ter­ous to husked by sor­row, he flick­ers from boy­ish to bro­ken as the time­line shifts. A mix of sad­ness, self-loathing and dor­mant charm, there’s even some­thing in it that re­calls Brando in On The Wa­ter­front — and there’s not much higher praise than that. VER­DICT Mas­ter­fully told and beau­ti­fully acted, Manch­ester By The Sea is a shat­ter­ing yet grace­ful el­egy of loss and grief.

Casey Af­fleck in the hap­pi­est scene in the movie.

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