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‘Manchester by the Sea’ review: Casey Affleck anchors heart-wrenching drama

Casey Affleck, left, and Lucas Hedges in "Manchester

Casey Affleck, left, and Lucas Hedges in "Manchester by the Sea" discuss their deepest emotions but only indirectly. Credit: Roadside Attractions / Claire Folger

PLOT A solitary handyman returns to his Massachusetts hometown to care for his newly fatherless nephew.

CAST Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams

RATED R (strong language, some violence)


PLAYING AT Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in Manhattan. Opens locally Dec. 2.

BOTTOM LINE A heart-wrenching drama anchored by Affleck, who notches up yet another subtle, stunning performance.

Rage radiates silently from Lee Chandler, the antisocial handyman played by Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea.” While fixing faucets and fans for the residents of a working-class Boston suburb, Lee is polite as can be, although it doesn’t take many drinks before he’s pummeling innocent bystanders in a bar. As we’ll eventually learn, Lee’s violence is really directed at himself.

Affleck is something to behold in this poignant drama by Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”), but that won’t surprise anyone who’s been following the actor for the past 20 years. Since his breakout role in Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For” (1995), Affleck has become the art-house counterpart to his movie-star brother, consistently turning in quiet, compelling performances in such under-the-radar films as “Gerry” and “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.” Affleck essentially carries his latest movie — he’s in nearly every scene — and does so in his usual understated, effortless way.

“Manchester by the Sea” is named for the Massachusetts fishing village where Affleck’s Lee grew up. Moving back and forth in time, the film allows Affleck to play two Lees: the happy roustabout raising three children with his wife, Randi (a brief but excellent Michelle Williams), and the angry ex-husband who fled his hometown under a cloud of suspicion. Lee returns only after the death of his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), and is stunned to learn that he is now the guardian of Joe’s teenage son, Patrick (an impressive Lucas Hedges).

The poetry in this movie comes from the familial bond — a very male one — between Lee and Patrick, who trade insults and blunt truths with ease but discuss their deepest emotions only indirectly. They share lighthearted moments, too, but even those are darkened by a question: Will Lee stay in town, confront his old ghosts and become the father Patrick needs? When the answer finally comes, we feel it deeply. That’s a testament not only to Lonergan’s film as a whole but to Affleck’s sublime, unforgettable performance.

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