You know that something bad, something crushing, must have happened to Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) in Manchester By the Sea, the keening, captivating drama out Friday in limited release. But for the first hour or more, you have no idea what it is. In flashbacks, Lee is a good-natured, blue-collar dad, flirting with his wife Randi (Michelle Williams), joshing around with his daughters, fishing with his big brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and his nephew (Lucas Hedges).
But in the present, Lee's detached. He works as a janitor for a big Boston apartment complex, and he shovels snow and plunges toilets in a purgatorial haze. He is forever, you sense, on the verge of snapping. And when he goes to a bar and picks a fight for no reason, his more flagrant self-destructive tendencies bubble to the surface.
The mystery of what happened to Lee is further intensified when he drives north to Manchester by the Sea, the small fishing community on the Massachusetts coast where he used to live. There, people look upon him askance. Is that the Lee Chandler, teenagers want to know. He's only there because his brother has passed away, and the guardianship of his nephew Patrick has fallen to him.
The bulk of the movie finds Lee and Patrick learning their new roles, feeling each other out, coping with the loss of their brother and father in their own, sometimes unexpected, ways. This bumbling relationship has about it a fraternal light-heartedness that saves the movie from total despair. Lee is enlisted to distract the mother of a girl Patrick intends to have sex with, for instance, and Lee's poor performance — "Who can't make small talk?" — leads to one of several car-ride spats. These are good scenes, sometimes tender, sometimes funny, and taken together capture the weird hurricane of emotions in the aftermath of death.
Lee's wife and kids are no longer in the picture — Randi has remarried, another child on the way — and Lee clearly loves his nephew, but he doesn't want the guardian job. Something deeper is keeping him from embracing this new life, even though it's one that, at first blush, seemed like a healthy change.
When you learn the truth, the balance of the film is a wrenching experience. Every wordless glance from Lee, every time he shoves his hands in his jeans or gazes blankly out a window, you see his heartbreak and his pain. Affleck has never been better. The emotional climax of the movie is, oddly enough but without a doubt, an unplanned conversation between Lee and Randi one chilly morning. "I got nothing big to say," she says. "That's okay," Lee says. And they talk, for a moment, about everything that tore their marriage apart. It's a stirring, unforgettable scene.
Affleck and Williams are virtual locks for Oscar noms in their lead and supporting roles. Hedges impresses in his first major role, and writer-director Kenneth Lonergan marks himself as an artist to be reckoned with. Props, also, to the choral score, composed by Canadian Lesley Barber. It emotes in lockstep with the movie's major players: pitches of reticence, penitence, and redemption.