Casey Affleck: seven essential films

Casey Affleck’s powerful turn in Manchester by the Sea has won him the Golden Globe for best actor and made him a front runner for the Oscar. Here are seven highlights of his career to date.

Lou Thomas

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Winner of this year’s Golden Globe for best actor (and a favourite for the Oscar) for his role in Kenneth Lonergan’s emotional drama Manchester by the Sea, Massachusetts-born actor Casey Affleck has always been a dependable screen presence – and often very much more than that. Quickly emerging from the shadow of his older brother, Ben Affleck, he’s notched up 31 appearances over his 22-year career in film, as well as contributing voice work to animated comedy-horror ParaNorman (2012). From his early appearance as a punky teen in To Die For (1995) to his solid lead role in the corrupt cop thriller Triple 9 (2016), he’s shown an impressive versatility. He’s equally at home in low-budget indies as in blockbuster caper movies (Tower Heist and the Ocean’s trilogy) and sci-fi (Interstellar).

Affleck’s also proven to be a cinematic renaissance man, taking on key creative roles on Gerry (2002), which he co-wrote, and I’m Still Here (2010), which he directed. In 2017, following the awards season hoopla for Manchester by the Sea, Affleck fans can look forward to seeing him reunited with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints director David Lowery and co-star Rooney Mara for A Ghost Story (2017), a film shot in relative secrecy during the summer of 2016.

Gerry (2002)

Director Gus Van Sant

Gerry (2002)

Five years after the huge success of Good Will Hunting (1997) had given Gus Van Sant and Matt Damon the freedom to pursue any film they wanted, they decided to test the resolve of audiences and do just that. The director and star hooked up again with the younger Affleck brother (who’d had a supporting part in Good Will Hunting) to create this strange, hypnotic oddity about two men named Gerry who get lost in the desert.

Van Sant shared the writing and editing duties with Damon and Affleck, with the latter two almost entirely alone on screen throughout. Festival and public screenings saw many bemused viewers walk out of the mostly plotless and often dialogue-free film, while even its biggest fan would admit the esoteric piece is an acquired taste. But it provided early proof of Affleck’s more creative impulses, and there’s no denying the result is a thing of beauty, with stunning, desolate scenes of unyielding nature that occasionally border on the psychedelic, suggesting the influence of Béla Tarr along with traces of Terrence Malick and Werner Herzog.

Gone Baby Gone (2007)

Director Ben Affleck

Gone Baby Gone (2007)

Ben Affleck’s directorial debut is his finest work behind the camera so far, in spite of the best picture Oscar that Argo (2012) later received. This Boston-set noir thriller focuses on a private detective couple (Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) who investigate the abduction of a young girl whose mother, Helene, is a coke addict and drug mule for a local supplier. It’s terse, darkly funny and rarely offers easy answers as it keeps viewers guessing. As one might expect from an adaptation of a Dennis Lehane novel, the narrative chicanery is gripping and the story’s wealth of characters have an air of street authenticity and winning turns of phrase. Affleck the younger is a terrific lead in his older sibling’s film; his character is by times brave, scared, confident and even incompetent in his efforts to solve the case, even to the detriment of his own relationships. A special mention must go to Amy Ryan, who won an Oscar nomination for her livewire turn as Helene.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

Director Andrew Dominik

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)

At his first appearance in Andrew Dominik’s slow-burn revisionist western, Affleck makes nearly as weighty an impression as the historical figures the film seeks to depict. He’s a slimy and uncertain Bob Ford, the James Gang wannabe who would later murder the most famous wild west criminal of all in cold blood. One could argue that James (Brad Pitt) showed stupidity to take the garrulous and cunning dreamer under his wing, but not if the real-life Ford showed as much oily obsequiousness and persistence as in Affleck’s portrayal. Ford ended his life ignominiously, murdered as he opened a tent bar he ran to serve a Colorado mining camp, while Affleck gained an Oscar nomination for his work.

Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography also bagged an Oscar nomination. He used a combination of lenses to create colour aberration on the fringes of the frame, giving the film the appearance of old photographs. Meanwhile, Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) was also cited as an influence on the film’s visuals, while Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provide a typically earthy soundtrack.

The Killer inside Me (2010)

Director Michael Winterbottom

The Killer inside Me (2010)

In this savage and uncompromising adaptation of Jim Thompson’s hard-boiled 1952 novel, Affleck is extraordinary as vicious, amoral, small-town deputy sheriff Lou Ford. A sun-bleached inversion of familiar film noir territory, Michael Winterbottom’s controversial tale follows Ford as he is sent to run prostitute Jessica Alba from the former’s native Central City, Texas. The pair strike up a sadomasochistic romance, and extortion, blackmail and murder soon snarl up the film’s complex byways. Affleck impresses in arguably his greatest performance to date. Ford is a callous, arrogant and brutal protagonist who is rarely likeable but retains a degree of charm despite his occasionally eye-watering sadism. The film’s shocking scenes of violence remain controversial.

I’m Still Here (2010)

Director Casey Affleck

I'm Still Here (2010)

An unfairly maligned project, I’m Still Here nearly bankrupted Affleck when he took two years off acting to make it, sinking his own money into its production. The mockumentary purports to show his friend, and then brother-in-law, Joaquin Phoenix, retire from his own acting career to become a rapper. Played straight as a proper doc, the action was revealed to be a hoax after the film’s release (many suspected Phoenix was playing an elaborate joke during filming).

Phoenix and Affleck co-wrote and co-produced the film, which follows Phoenix and his idiotic two-man entourage from LA to Las Vegas, New York and Miami. The actor is shown to be a spoilt, coke-snorting, prostitute-procuring chump, with hilarious delusions of his own rapping ability. A standout scene shows Phoenix playing his terrible demo CD to a shocked P Diddy in the latter’s studio, while disastrous rap ‘gigs’ show he should definitely stick to the day job. Aside from the many laughs viewers can get while watching, there is fun to be had wondering how much of the stupid and annoying Hollywood behaviour on screen can be expected from real-life A-listers.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)

Director David Lowery

Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013)

A wistful, elegiac tone permeates David Lowery’s swampy modern western, thanks partly to Bradford Young’s sterling cinematography. Shot on filtered, underexposed 35mm film, the 1970s-set crime drama sees Affleck play Bob Muldoon, a criminal who takes the wrap when his pregnant girlfriend Ruth Guthrie (a luminous Rooney Mara) shoots Sheriff Patrick Wheeler (a thoughtful, lovelorn Ben Foster). Four years later, Muldoon escapes from prison and Wheeler develops romantic feelings for Guthrie, as Muldoon seeks help from his mentor/surrogate father Skerritt (Keith Carradine) and childhood friend Sweetie (Nate Parker).

Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) is an obvious reference point for this pair of criminal lovers with the world against them. Affleck, like Martin Sheen in the earlier film, has his work cut out as he grapples with murderous bounty hunters, Wheeler and even Skerritt. And, much like Badlands, while there are scenes of excitement and action, the mood, emotional pull and regret of the central pairing is by turns joyful and heartbreaking.

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Director Kenneth Lonergan

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

On the surface, Manchester by the Sea is a simple family drama. Affleck plays janitor Lee Chandler, who leaves Boston suburb Quincy to return to his hometown upstate following the death of his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler, superb). When his brother’s will is read, Lee is stunned to find that he’s been left in custody of Joe’s teenage son. However, those familiar with Kenneth Lonergan’s previous films will get an ominous feeling that there is far more to the story. And they would be right.

Like Lonergan’s last film, Margaret (2011), Manchester by the Sea is an epic of big emotion and small details – replete with pain, longing and heartbreak. In a movie full of intricate family tensions, the burden of Lee’s traumatic past is precisely calibrated in Affleck’s posture, facial expression, speed of movement and tone of voice, as much as in more obvious signifiers of mood like the volume of his voice or the actual words expressed. Indeed, aside from the moments where he loses his temper with professional, social or familial woes, it’s a contained, restrained performance, where a look can say more than a lesser film’s entire screenplay.

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