Regular Scorsese collaborator Kenneth Lonergan’s first film in five years has become an Oscar front runner, with rapturous receptions on the film festival circuit and a win at last weekend’s Golden Globes.
Set in the titular Massachusetts town, a restrained, quiet handy man (Casey Affleck) returns to his former home in the aftermath of his brother’s death. Having been named the guardian of his teenage nephew (Lucas Hedges), he attempts to deal with fresh grief and the harrowing events of his past.
Subtext is the weapon of choice here, with sharp, natural dialogue allowing the emotion to build steadily. Lonergan’s characters, predominantly mostly working class men, are unable to vocalise the pain they feel, but by mid-way through the piece there’s a real sense of knowing these characters. Then the rug is well and truly pulled from underneath us, with masterfully directed flashbacks landing an emotional sucker-punch.
Casey Affleck delivers a near-perfect performance as the quiet, tortured lead. While never overtly emotional, his pain screams from behind his eyes, making the slow unveiling of his story utterly gripping. He and co-star Lucas Hedges also bring dark humour to the proceedings as relatives suddenly thrust together, unsure of what the new normal is. Michelle Williams, meanwhile, is as impressive as ever as his ex-wife.
A showcase in the power of understatement, both the film and its lead should be taken very seriously once the big awards start being handed out. At a time of year when we’re well used to overcooked dramas, Manchester By The Sea achieves great impact by feeling devastatingly real.