I want to talk about what it means for a character to be ‘contemporary’ because we hear that word being thrown around a lot lately. ‘Contemporary’ best describes something that is happening right now, right this second. It is an observation of the present time and something that applies to a large group of people. Some performances are so contemporary that they end being trapped in their small present universe and have trouble being recognized in the later decades. Think any performance by James Stewart, Sidney Poitier or even Lauren Bacall. At the time of their ‘creation’ they were considered to be the top form of acting and yet, as we look back upon them now we get the feeling that something is not right. Something doesn’t fit the picture anymore and it gets under our skin forcing us to ask ourselves how come the distance between the viewer and the character is so palpable. Well, sometimes you stumble into a performance that is so contemporary to the point it becomes timeless, and not for its myth, but for its raw, larger than life depiction and delivery. Think Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, a performance that was meant to embody the anger and frustration of Martin Scorsese’s generation and still manages to surprise us up to this day. Think Sean Penn in Mystic River, where we get the brutal portrayal of an everyday man desperate to avenge his daughter’s murder. Think Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, the story of an oilman at the beginning of the 19th century who gives up his entire life in order to become rich. And finally, think Casey Affleck in this year’s Manchester by the Sea. Yes, Casey Affleck’s character is more relevant than ever and will be for a long time to come. Why? Go on, have a read.
Lee Chandler is the name of the character. He is a middle-aged janitor and handyman working in a few apartment buildings in Boston, who seems to have trouble dealing with everyday life and the people surrounding him. He is enveloped in his own little world and is hesitant to come out of it. For some odd reason we are not surprised. On the other hand, every now and then we witness these flashbacks that show us the young Lee Chandler, a boyish fisherman from a little town up north, by the sea, who spends his days fishing, sailing and playing around with his brother (Kyle Chandler in a very Marc Ruffalo-esque role) and his nephew, little Patrick. The past almost merges with the present and sometimes it is not easy to distinguish which one is which. In fact, this difficulty in pointing out the past and the present helps the film’s character development in a major way. We get the side of free, almost teenager Lee who enjoys drinking, playing table tennis, partying with his friends but also enjoys taking care of his family, his wife, his two daughters and his youngest son. Then something happens. A real tragedy. A point of no return. And the past inevitably triggers the present. Lee is transformed by a series of dramatic events. The present is just as painful as the past, says writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me; Margaret), and there is no way of denying it when Lee, busy shoveling piles of snow and clearing someone’s toilet, receives a phone call from the hospital up in Manchester telling him his beloved older brother just died of a fatal heart attack. Tragedy follows Lee as he quits the job and drives out to his hometown in order to take care of the funeral arrangements. There is one problem though, Patrick, Lee’s nephew, is now to be taken care of by Lee himself, nominated in his brother’s will as the boy’s guardian. And that is when we get Casey Affleck’s full range as an actor.
What makes this powerhouse of a performance so contemporary is the way the actor manges to bottle up any kind of emotion and at the same time produce the triple amount of feeling for the character to be human and realistic. Lee Chandler is a walking zombie, empty and at the same time filled to the brim, close to self destruction, without any real purpose to his life. He breathes because his body tells him to do so. He walks because his legs and muscles are still intact, but there is nothing more than a bunch of memories stuck inside of his heart. Affleck’s job is tougher than it looks. He has to play a character without any ambition, without any goal or presence, and still make him look human. His body language is very simple, trapped in a cage, unable to do more than one thing at a time, unable to communicate with the rest of the world. Let’s face it, whatever Lee had to offer to the world, he doesn’t have it anymore. He’s like a dried-up well, a machine that is oiled enough to perform the same task over and over again. So why do we empathize with such an uninteresting character? How come we’re drawn to a person lacking any real identity? After all, we’ve seen so many similar characters fail because of the actors’ inability to transmit any feeling or story, more like shadows than bodies. Instead, Affleck is different. There is a rare intensity to his acting, the kind you usually find in Sean Penn and Daniel Day-Lewis’ acting, or even the acting of the glory days of young Pacino. The intensity comes from the physical as well as ‘spiritual’ silence of the character. The little bursts of violence and frustration we get out of Lee happen only when he’s drunk enough to get into a meaningless brawl in a bar. That’s when the viewer has the rare possibility of getting a glimpse at the tamed beast resting within Lee, similarly to Sean Penn’s character in Mystic River, who seems quiet and controlled throughout most of the movie with the exception of the scene where he discovers his daughter’s dead body and explodes into a maniacal rage. In this case, the fireworks aren’t that potent, but it still is a beautiful example of how a subtle performance can turn a quiet character into a powerful, dominating on-screen presence. Lee is a human wreck we should all be capable of understanding. The struggle in his eyes, his gestures, is a very realistic one. It is not a fantasy story and that is also why Manchester by the Sea, a small indie film produced by Amazon studios is racking up all the awards right now: because it deals with reality in a very non-Hollywood, gritty way. Lee’s actions are human, difficult to justify, sometimes illogical but that is precisely why he is so believable and present when we see him on the silver screen. Affleck has always been in my opinion an extremely underrated actor, able bring humanity even to the most despicable characters such as Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. He subtracts the masculinity everyone seeks nowadays and adds a shattered, broken quality that makes everything seem more natural and at the same time, more difficult to understand. Most viewers don’t like to be played around with but that’s what great actors do, they play around and toy with your emotions. Lee Chandler is like that, he confronts himself, his ex-wife and you, the viewer. He makes you grit your teeth. And it hurts.
Welcome to reality.