THE HISTORY of American men on screen is the history of repressed emotion. From Marlon Brando’s animalistic slow boil to Cary Grant’s Teflon-coated savoir-faire, movie icons have embodied the masculine inability to just say what they feel, for God’s sake. Recall, if you will, the Fonz, who was unable even to utter the words “wrong” or “sorry.”
It is this rarified company to which Casey Affleck seeks admittance with his emotionally constipated performance in Manchester by the Sea. I’m being a little snarky, because it’s an impressive performance, especially coming from Casey Affleck. Damn it, there I go again. I like Casey, and it has to be tough trying to escape big brother Ben’s shadow. But as a grieving (and grieving, and grieving) New England handyman who’s unexpectedly put in charge of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Affleck seems to be trying a bit too hard, straining towards a profundity that he can’t quite grasp.
This is the third feature directed by playwright-turned-filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan, and with its downbeat tone and Serious Drama, it’s of a piece with his earlier efforts, You Can Count on Me and Margaret. (It’s like he’s trying to make up for the fact that his big Hollywood break was writing the screenplay for Analyze This.) In Manchester, Lee Chandler (Affleck) seems content to shovel walkways and unclog toilets for a living in Boston, until word comes that his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, seen in flashbacks) has died of a heart attack.
Joe’s will stipulates that he wants Lee to move back to his titular hometown and become Patrick’s guardian. Lee, however, is haunted by past events and resists, with a toddler’s tenacity, every effort by the people around him to help him come to terms. I feel for the guy, and you will too, but after two hours, I wanted to grab him by the collar and tell him to buck up. After all, he’s at least going to get an Oscar nomination out of it.