Casey Affleck won his Oscar from his second Oscar nomination for portraying Lee Chandler in Manchester By The Sea.
Having said that I always try to look at a performance fairly, even if I did not care for the film, and Affleck's work should not be hand waved away here. This is in a way difficult performance, obviously not to appreciate by the critics's almost drone like reaction to it, but to see why it is truly great. To do so though it is best to look upon the performance chronologically rather than by the film's jumbled version of the story. In the past scenes we see Affleck play Lee as just a normal guy from Massachusetts, with a far more credible and consistent accent than a few of his co-stars. We see scenes with his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) and his nephew Patrick (eventually played by Lucas Hedges) on the boat together. Affleck is good in these scenes by just plainly showing a loving and warm uncle fooling around with his nephew. Affleck offers a guy full of life, not overdone, but just a normal guy who enjoys his life as we also see him with his three kids and his wife Randi (Michelle Williams). Again Affleck's performance just works as a natural depiction of just a guy who loves his family and living his life.
Of course being in Massachusetts one must indulge in some loud obnoxious behavior, the film world version of Massachusetts mind you. Still just as in Good Will Hunting, Affleck is quite capable in bringing that sort of buffoonery to screen, although here it isn't meant to be all that funny and it's not. The behavior though is what leads to the death of all of Lee's children, must be three because having one dead kid just isn't enough for Lonergan, after he drunkenly fails to properly secure a fireplace before leaving to get more beer. Affleck absolutely delivers in the scene first in his horrified reaction to seeing his house in flames, then later in his testimony to the police. Affleck makes the emotion raw as he inflicts every word of his delivery with a terrible pain suggesting the grief at its most intense. Affleck conveys the narrow focus of Lee's mind in the horrible constriction of it all as he attempts to confess his crimes. When it is determined to be an accident and Lee is let go, he attempts suicide. Affleck is excellent in the moment as he makes the anguish palatable in Lee, and brings the needed visceral quality to the man's harrowing breakdown.
We are given just a few brief scenes immediately afterwards though Affleck uses them well as he portrays Lee's grief as very much still alive. He walks as though he is drowned within in it, and only wakes up to occasionally viciously lash out when prodded in any way. Affleck presents the still direct suffering of the grief as he has barely a handle on it since it still actively pains him. This then takes us to the Lee that we see for much of the film, which is Lee in the present timeline. In this timeline Affleck gives often an extremely low key performance almost monotone at times, but that's is not a criticism, this approach is actually the crux of his performance. Affleck's work realizes a man who has come to terms with his grief but has not recovered from it. Affleck's construction of this is rather remarkable in the way he so fully embodies this state of Lee. His eyes are essentially dead most of the time, with only the most muted emotion from them as though that is all he is able to tolerate, his body language is always distant. In that Affleck rarely speaks to some directly or looks them in the eye as though to avoid connecting with them beyond a surface level.
What is most impressive about Affleck's work are that the years of dealing with the guilt and depression seem to be sewn within him. Affleck portrays it to be a part of Lee that leaves him in this strange detached state. Lee's catch phrase is basically "I don't care" and Affleck makes that to be true although not in quite the way you might expect. Affleck doesn't make Lee's behavior that as specifically some selfish jerk, it certainly can be construed as jerky behavior, rather he illustrates a man who is unwilling to make any connect whatsoever preferring his state of not really feeling much of anything. When we see Lee working his job as a janitor for his tenants, there is nothing but the work in Affleck's performance. He reacts just enough to be human, but none of it really phases him even when one of the tenants becomes angry with him. Affleck gives us a man who basically has come to terms with what he's done by closing him off from almost everyone. There is an emotional moment though when he attacks a man at the bar after the man randomly stares at him too long. Affleck handles it as basically a primal burst of hatred for his life, and being reminded of being ostracized after the tragedy, caused by a connection of sorts through that random stare.
Affleck only occasionally from this point has emotional moments as he gives a very consistent performance in terms of expressing Lee's state. This is even as he must go to take care of his nephew after his brother's death. Affleck if anything becomes more detached at times as though trying to keep himself from essentially feeling his pain again. Affleck, even when Lee is dealing with the immediate aftermath of the death of his brother, plays it very close to the chest with only a momentary outburst. Affleck utilizes the moment to portray the control in Lee to basically be detached, he breaks, but basically calms himself to feeling almost nothing as soon as he can. Affleck remains consistent in his scenes with Lucas Hedge's Patrick. Affleck isn't quite cold, as in there is not a single place in which Lee suggests any hatred for Patrick, but he only reaffirms his state by conversing with him yet never quite connecting. Their conversations are just a bit disjointed, as there is a foundation of that warm relationship we once saw, but Lee won't go any further than that. The most he'll go is occasionally snap if Patrick endangers himself in any way, and again in that moment Affleck reflects the intensity of his fear through anger not to repeat his personal losses.
This does leave to an atypical character arc as in every slight change in Affleck's performance, which can be ever so minor, in terms of portraying more overt emotion outside of his outbursts Affleck basically emphasizes two things. He indicates any more warmth in his work also comes with just a bit more pain all the same, suggesting it only causes Lee to further relive his terrible memories the more he opens up. This culminates when his ex-wife openly forgives him. This is actually a scene where I noticed some criticism, from those otherwise positive on the film, against his performance because Affleck is rather quiet in the scene, which completely misinterprets his entire performance. Affleck in the scene still gives us Lee trying his hardest to dodge his feelings and being confronted with the person who most shares his pain, Affleck compromises only ever so slightly. After the moment though Affleck's in his eyes basically his old grief takes root as he has one more violent breakdown filled with rage then another soon afterwards only filled with despair. What seems to be the film's main intent it to gives us this man who cannot actually recover from his losses. What Affleck's performance does is earn this intent, and give understanding to it. He shows us the happy man from the beginning against the man who has come to terms only through a terrible and shaky compromise to commit self exile both physically and emotionally from the past. This might have sounded like a detached review actually because I don't like the film, but I won't penalize Affleck for that. He delivers in creating a convincing portrait of a man who will never overcome misery, even if I did not find the film all that compelling.