You can't really prepare yourself for the emotional powerhouse that is Manchester by the Sea. And you shouldn't let big-mouth critics and friends tell you too much about what's ahead in writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's transcendent benchmark. No film this year has moved me more with its humor, heart and humanity.
I will say this much: Lonergan's script – a model of exceptional screenwriting without being tidy, timid or tactful – concerns the ramifications of a family tragedy, one that extends from those directly involved to the community that alternately offers and withholds nurturing support. Engrave the name Casey Affleck on the Oscar for Best Actor right now, so extraordinary and engulfing is his performance as Lee Chandler, a Boston janitor called back to his Massachusetts hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea when his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, superb) dies of congestive heart failure. In the recent past, Lee had been brutally whacked by life, seeking escape in the rote duties of fixing sinks, unclogging toilets and starting bar fights with strangers who look at him sideways. His one human connection is his brother, who runs a commercial fishing boat and tries to raise his son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges, in a livewire, star-is-born performance), a randy 16-year-old whose main concerns are sex, hockey and his rock band. Patrick's alcoholic mother (Gretchen Mol) had long ago deserted her family. Now Lee has been named the boy's guardian, a job for which this self-loathing, self-punishing handyman is singularly unsuited.
In an ordinary movie, these plotlines would converge with aching familiarity. Not here. Lonergan fills Manchester with disorderly sprawl, a sense of life as it's lived and not manufactured by Hollywood. With brilliant contributions from cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes and composer Lesley Barber, the film lets us experience Lee as he closes himself off from the world. Affleck has been outstanding before, notably in Gone Baby Gone and his Oscar-nominated turn in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but these are his finest two-plus hours on screen. In flashbacks that allow Lonergan to double back in time and viewers to see characters before trauma defined them, Lee is introduced as a charming bad boy, a sexually playful husband to Randi (Michelle Williams) and doting dad to their three young children. Then the unthinkable happens, and their marriage ends. In a movie of shattering moments, a chance meeting on the street between Lee and Randi will wipe you out. It's a scene you won't forget. Ever. Williams, radiating ferocity and feeling, hits a new peak as a performer, and she and Affleck dig into their roles with every fiber of their being. This is acting of the highest caliber.
Awards will surely come their way, along with Lonergan, who in his third film – following You Can Count on Me (2000) and his broken passion project Margaret (2011), does everything right by never going soft on who these people are and the barriers that lie ahead. Producer Matt Damon, once slated to direct and star, understood that Lonergan knew this material in his bones. Good call. The film is a personal triumph for the writer-director. Best known as a playwright (This Is Our Youth, Lobby Hero) and a screenwriter of farce (Analyze This) and Oscar fodder (Gangs of New York), this son of two shrinks has long been concerned with what we hide from others and ourselves. Lee Chandler acts out on impulses he's afraid to examine or articulate. And as we watch him, through Affleck's piercing performance, deny himself the comfort of human warmth and forgiveness, we weep for him. No tricks. No manipulation. No catharsis. No big-moment monologue that offers easy redemption. It's hardly an accident that Manchester by the Sea ranks with the year's very best films. It takes a piece out of you.