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This image released by Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios shows Kyle Chandler, left, and Casey Affleck in a scene from "Manchester By The Sea." (Claire Folger/Roadside Attractions and Amazon Studios via AP)Claire_Folger/The Associated Press

They say a mystery is more interesting than its resolution. You can see that bit of wisdom at work in many a genre piece; in the murder mystery or the thriller, the intriguing possibilities necessarily narrow, sometimes disappointingly, to one single conclusion. But it can also be true of the emotional drama where the revelation of the abusive parent or the unplanned pregnancy is often less compelling than the anguish it explains.

One of the things that is admirable about Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea – and there are many admirable things about this quietly moving drama – is the way its initial enigma seems to need no explanation; yet, once deciphered, the film does not falter but moves only deeper into the emotional territory it charts.

The enigma is Lee Chandler himself. He is the protagonist of Manchester by the Sea, so ably captured by Casey Affleck with the burr of old New England in his voice and the hunch of a lightweight boxer in his stance. A Boston janitor, he is depicted as dour, taciturn and occasionally combative, one of those people whose unhappy personality keeps others at bay.

You avoid him rather than understand him, and it's a testament to Affleck's performance that the standoffish Lee does not seem to require the back story of a fictional character. Like a real person, he just is that way.

But then Lee's older brother (Kyle Chandler) dies from a heart condition, leaving his teenage son an orphan and, as Lee reluctantly returns to the hometown of the title to look after funeral arrangements, a heart-wrenching explanation for his remove is eventually given. Now the question becomes whether a man, in so much pain he seems barely able to swallow let alone carry on a conversation, can finally conquer the trauma that made him flee in the first place.

Lonergan is a director whose small and infrequent dramas (Margaret, You Can Count on Me) are earning him a reputation as an auteur who is thoughtful rather than prolific, and here he seamlessly integrates the back story into the current action, deftly alternating between the good old boy who Lee used to be and the broken man of the present.

In these scenes of a happier past, it is Michelle Williams who shines as Lee's mouthy young wife, offering a pitch-perfect performance as a tough-talking, deep-feeling working-class broad. Affleck is from the region, but she has also neatly mastered the regional accent, echoing in their speech the lovingly detailed portrait of a Massachusetts fishing town in winter created by Lonergan and cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes.

Back in the present day, Lucas Hedges movingly portrays Lee's nephew Patrick, successfully alternating between the boy's randy adolescent energy and his anguish over his father's death. Another admirable thing about Manchester by the Sea is that Hedges' performance in the role of this young Lothario is often very funny as Lonergan surprisingly punctuates the darkness of the story with the odd light of black humour.

The director's touch is so deft here, so perfectly balanced, it seems almost churlish to point to the occasional false note where his emphasis grows uncharacteristically heavy. Nonetheless, the soaring classical score, including passages from Handel's Messiah, seems to place an unnecessary stress on emotions already so powerfully evoked by the cast. And a happy interchange between Lee and his nephew on a fishing boat years previously is a rather clunky piece of foreshadowing.

There, Lee playfully asks the little boy who he would trust more to look after him on an island, his uncle or his father, and of course the child replies that daddy would do the better job. About a decade later, the teenage Patrick is now stuck with the wrong guy, as Lee adamantly refuses to relocate permanently to Manchester and become Patrick's guardian. There is a resolution to all this, but banish any thought of a sentimental, Oprah-esque ending full of relationships repaired, lessons learned and futures secured. Lonergan never suggests Lee has conquered the past, nor that the next part will be obvious or easy.

In a scene toward the end, Lee bumps into his former wife on the street in Manchester and, in one of the film's most searing moments, exquisitely rendered by Willams and Affleck, she begins to recall their history, telling him he's broken-hearted. Lee rebuffs her, saying of himself, "You don't understand. There's nothing there." As Lonergan plumbs the depths of emotional trauma and untangles the knots of family ties, you know that "nothing" could not be farther from the truth.