Casey Affleck is a rare animal. For a decade, Hollywood's ecosystem has favored actors buff enough to star in one action franchise per year. To compete, Affleck's brother, Ben, and best bud, Matt Damon, have pumped up like gorillas to play Batman and Jason Bourne, respectively. These steroidal alphas still consider themselves serious actors, but the side effect is that they seem increasingly ridiculous in serious roles. It's getting harder to look at Damon's six-pack — or at Mark Wahlberg or Chris Hemsworth or The Rock or even Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise — and think, "That is an ordinary man." It doesn't matter if the director puts them in an ugly sweater; no normal civilian spends six hours a day in the gym. An entire generation of actors is losing the ability to disappear into the great parts that made Kevin Costner and Kevin Spacey's careers in the '90s before they, too, met Superman.
But Casey Affleck hasn't (or can't, or refuses to) evolve. In his first shot in writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's chilly Manchester by the Sea — a film that's virtually guaranteed to land him an Oscar nomination — the 41-year-old actor stands on a small fishing boat off the coast of Massachusetts, his spindly legs sticking out of baggy shorts like a child's. Next to him is a real child, his brother Joe's (Kyle Chandler) kid, Patrick (Ben O'Brien). "If you could take one guy to an island with you," Affleck's Lee asks his nephew, "who would you take: me or your father?" The boy says he'd take his dad. Of course he says he'd take his bigger, stronger dad. It's cruel to make him say the truth out loud. Yet something in Affleck's insecure build, the stubble clinging to his chin, his self-mocking bluster, makes us forgive him for asking.
When the film checks back in on Patrick a decade later, now played by the promising Lucas Hedges, he's almost a man himself. Joe is dead from congenital heart disease. Joe's alcoholic ex-wife, Elise (Gretchen Mol), is god knows where. Uncle Lee must raise Patrick, even though the teen is his size and more mature, which means Lee has to quit his janitor job in Quincy, pack up his miserable basement studio apartment, and move back home to Manchester-by-the-Sea, the last place he wants to be. "I'm just a backup," he protests to the lawyer, his monotone voice struggling to stay flat. He's fine being number two — forget being Patrick's protector. He'd rather be alone in his Quincy cell, pretending not to notice the local women pleading for a date. Failing that, he'll get into drunken bar fights until he's locked up for real.
This sounds like the setup for a hugfest, the kind of heart-warmer that ends with Lee and Patrick grooving to "We Are Family." That's movie-normal, where happiness inevitably rewards two hours of tears. But Lonergan plants his feet in the wintry New England pragmatism that keeps Lee from being able to bury his brother until the ground thaws. He refuses to consider moving home due to a slightly too-big gotcha! flashback that Lonergan drops one-third of the way through (which wouldn't work if not for the terrific cast). Around town, his name — "Is that Lee Chandler?!" — gets hissed like the bogeyman. Even the waters of the actual Manchester Bay, the one place where Lee loosens up enough to smile, are dotted with threats: Pride Rock, Misery Island, Little Misery Island, and House Island, recalling the cluttered domesticity that Lee once shared with his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams).
When Lee was married, he still acted like a kid. There's a funny sequence when Lonergan surprise-reveals that Lee fathered one, then two, then three children, who tumble out from the corners of the screen like squashed clowns. Later, Randi asks Lee to kick his drunk friends out of the rec room so the baby can sleep. He's clutching a ping-pong paddle and a beer and whinging like a scolded teen. That's the last time we see him have friends — or even desires. He's about to lose everything and throw away whatever's stubbornly sticking around, including his dignity. Lee deals with loss by refusing to love anything at all. And Lonergan is willing to let him.
The score is a beautiful mistake. Lonergan drowns scenes with tragic orchestrals that don't fit the film at all, including a bit where we're maybe meant to imagine that Lee drives around listening to opera. (Not a chance.) Manchester's strength is its naturalism, like how during one of Lee and Patrick's endless fights, Lee forgets where he parked the car, and then a beat later drops his keys. At Lonergan's best, he turns the sounds of Patrick's home into its own claustrophobic, percussive sympathy. As Lee sits at the kitchen table making funeral arrangements, one of Patrick's girlfriends pads in for a yogurt. Then Patrick fixes cereal, the clusters pinging off the bowl like bullets. The chewing builds. This house has too much life. Lee has to leave.
Originally, Matt Damon wanted to both direct and star in Manchester. But he got busy with his blockbuster schedule and gave the reins to Lonergan and, later, the lead role to Affleck. It's impossible to imagine the part working as well for anyone else, especially Damon. Lee is a weasel, the kind of creature who cheats because he's too weak to play fair. He's defensive and unpredictable. In bar fights, he throws the first sucker punch because he knows the return blow will knock him flat. Lee needed to be played by someone who knows he's going to fail. He'll probably even fail Patrick. "I cant beat it," sighs Lee. "I can't beat it, I'm sorry." Lonergan doesn't have to explain what "it" is. It's everything and nothing all at once. Like his brother, Lee's prepared to die of a bad heart.