Amazon Studios                         137 Minutes                       R

Can a long, depressing film be saved by intense performances? This is one film so dark and uncomfortable, it’s hard to sit through at times. But Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges kept us watching, curious to see why the people they played were so loving but their relationships so strained.

Matt Damon was scheduled to star in and direct the film he and actor John Krasinski thought up. It was written by Kenneth Lonergan, but schedule conflicts for both actors got in the way. The script was put on the 2014 Black List, which means it was well liked but not produced yet. Lonergan and Casey Affleck had worked together before. The Writer/Director pitched Affleck’s being the 40 year old divorced janitor and uncle, Lee, who is obliged to return home to care for his nephew, played by Hedges (Moonrise Kingdom) after his brother, Joe, played by Kyle Chandler, dies.

Lee has distanced himself from everybody, including his friends and family in Manchester for reasons revealed a little at a time. Not knowing he is to be appointed guardian, Lee struggles with the decision.  Affleck’s flashback scenes with his wife and children, his buddies in Manchester, his brother and nephew on their boat, show him in a happier previous life. Even though we understand where he’s coming from, it’s still hard for us to fully embrace him. Whenever he’s on the brink of doing what’s right and honorable, he pulls back into his shell of despair. He is truly a tragic character.

Affleck shows a quiet intensity in this film we liken to Marlon Brando in a way. His acting style here is halting, and almost haunting reacting to people as he slowly measures his every response and lashes out in fury at other times. His conversations are believable and natural, talking at the same time, interrupting each other, showing both humor and pain. Affleck credits Lonergan with writing a script so fully realized, even emphasizing certain words, that there was no reason to change or improvise any of it. We think Lonergan may have put in too much detail, but it obviously helped Affleck give a most memorable performance as Lee. It’s so intense at times, he practically dragged us down with him.

Amazingly, Affleck is matched in intensity with a riveting turn by Lucas Hedges (Moonrise Kingdom,)  as the 16 year old Patrick. He seethes with anger as he deals with the death of his father, Joe, and the changes in his life living with his uncle as guardian. The complexity of the character he plays makes him an interesting study since we know he really loves his uncle, yet hates what he’s doing to both of them. He’s a pretty precocious  teen. We thought Hedges’ character was almost too sophisticated for a 16-year-old. He seemed more like a young man in his 20’s and more together than his uncle, which was the point. Incredibly, Affleck and Hedges are able to mine some humor despite all of their despair.

Michelle Williams gives another stellar performance as Lee’s ex-wife, Randi. She studied the broad Boston accent and attitude and sounded just like the North Shore Boston people Al and Affleck grew up with. Affleck had apparently toned it way down, until the Director and Williams changed his mind. Lonergan talked to so many residents of Manchester-by-the-Sea doing research, the accent won. The location shots of New England fishing town, Manchester-by-the-Sea, are picturesque and used effectively as a diversion or breath between flashbacks and scenes. Lonergan also sets the scenes with classical music that adds to the drama, especially in the more dramatic situations.

Williams, as Randi, has two very different scenes that stick out in this film. One is a horribly tragic flashback. It is extremely heartbreaking. The other is when, later, she meets Lee on the street in town and they engage in an uncomfortably emotional, but unexpectedly sweet conversation as a couple that once was.

Gretchen Mol and Matthew Broderick play Patrick’s estranged Mother and new Step-Father. Their characters are there more for background than anything else. Not sure it was worth including.  

The picturesque, rocky New England coastline is the perfect setting for this character study about love and pain. There are scenes where we see Lee act out, react to people strangely, and we come to understand why he has become so detached with a sadness that is hard for him to beat. This is a depressing film, but it’s worth getting to know these people through the actors’ intense performances on this long voyage.