Every person undergoes traumatic experiences. Their quantity and quality vary, but once suffered, these experiences are incorporated into the person, usually invisibly to the rest of us. When they are not hidden enough, we may wish a person would just get over it already. Yet we marvel, when a person calmly reveals some past trauma, at the human ability seemingly to tuck such things away.
Kenneth Lonergan’s magnificent film Manchester by the Sea—poignant, funny, tough—portrays the human limits of this ability. A janitor named Lee Chandler (the wicked good Casey Affleck) is living alone in a tiny but sparse basement apartment in Quincy, Massachusetts, shoveling snow and plunging toilets, rejecting romantic offers and instigating barroom brawls—when he gets the call. His brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) has been felled by a heart attack. Joe named the alcoholic, antisocial Lee the guardian of Joe’s teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). No one, Lee least of all, thinks it wise.
The trailers and synopses of this movie make it seem as if it is Joe’s death that propels this story. The readers of this review deserve a “spoiler alert” here, though perhaps some viewers of the film—those who have lost young children—would appreciate it as a “trigger warning.” The precipitating event, as gradually revealed in flashbacks, is actually the death of Lee’s son and two daughters in a house fire several years earlier—a fire the father of three caused accidentally.
Joe must have chosen his younger brother to take care of Patrick not only because the formally fun-loving Lee had once been close to the boy, but because Joe realized that Lee needed some cajoling to rejoin the world of the living. The movie may sound like a tearjerker. But with its matter-of-fact, even coarse style, Manchester by the Sea captivates without manipulating our emotions. One can hardly imagine a more somber film, but Lonergan leavens it with his unobtrusive humor. Lee, while cleaning up after plunging a young woman’s toilet, overhears her on the phone confessing to a friend her romantic fantasy about him. Patrick’s rock band calls itself “Stentorian.” Harsh blue-collar wisecracks abound. Humor gives human beings rest from seriousness and a distancing perspective on difficult topics, and the movie knows we need it.
This story would jerk more tears had Lonergan focused more on Lee’s children, or if he had shown us their bodies. In fact, in the flashbacks we barely meet them—and we cannot mourn those we do not know. We mourn Lee, and human beings generally. This is a tragedy not in the loose sense in which super sad stuff happens and we sob, but in a more classical sense: it displays a man’s downfall, set up by his prior deeds, evoking pity and fear to inspire wonder at the limits of human understanding and action.
Viewers of a movie should expect the extraordinary. From the beginning, the camera of this deliberately paced film lingers on the ordinary, lulling us into comfort with the uneventful. So we are as unprepared as Lee was for the fire when the film finally, calmly, reveals the event of his life. Though a universal human experience, trauma is not normal. The experience ruptures normal life, forcing itself on people obsessively, consumingly, for a time. As the film illustrates, it has comprehensive reach, changing the meaning of every tiny thing. We learn from Lee, as he explains to the police after the fire, which series of events touched it off. To those of us who often do stupid little things, this scene is terrifying—his action seems unfairly plucked by fate from the trillions people perform every day. The mid-movie revelation reverberates backwards. All earlier scenes, and the camera’s patient focus on the ordinary, shift their significance once we viewers know.
In its unhurried verisimilitude, the film displays the bizarre persistence of the normal. This provides opportunities for Lonergan’s incongruous humor, but also serves a more fundamental theme: A traumatic event, unexpected, descends with seeming randomness to destroy normalcy, and yet the normal continues. It’s weird that one must still do the dishes, shovel the snow, change the oil, and be smiley with none-the-wiser strangers.
The normal persists, but is made eerie. One asks, with what right? From within the trauma, it’s an affront to justice that the normal chugs along as though nothing changed. From within the trauma, it seems wrong that we could allow ourselves to return to the normal. Thus, once viewers experience Lee’s mistake and its realistic but disproportionate costs, they sympathize with his inability to return to life, to move on.
But trauma has a time. It fades. It erupts suddenly out of the everyday and sinks again, slowly, submerged back into it. The incongruous persistence of the normal in the midst of trauma, though, is what finally permits reentry. When we learn what happened, we are able to pity Lee, who had up until then seemed only an extra churlish member of that species known locally as “Masshole.” Now, we fear and hope for him: Can he accept Joe’s invitation to live a life after?
Other characters in the film have seen their own, albeit less violent, traumas. Patrick, years before losing his father to a heart attack, lost his mother to alcohol and mental illness. Patrick’s mother (Gretchen Mol) is patching together a life in recovery engaged to a born-again Christian (Matthew Broderick), but she proves incapable of following through on her impulse to parent her own son. One man recounts how his father disappeared at sea when the man was a teenager. By giving this story to a two-minute character, Lonergan reminds us that each passerby in our lives has suffered significantly, yet shapes a life. Other characters show that what we hope for Lee is possible.
It seems to me that people do not recover from trauma. One recovers from being startled, but a truly shocking experience transforms one’s world and oneself, barring any return. In fact, a major obstacle to taking care of Patrick is Lee’s dread of returning to his town, Manchester by the Sea. But more deeply, we cannot imagine Lee returning to the carefree vivacity we see in flashbacks.
Recovery would require something like the dehumanizing false mercy given the routinely traumatized robots on the HBO series Westworld—a memory wipe at the end of each day. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) portrays the desire to move on free of burdens by erasing select memories from the “map” of the brain. These are not fulfilling human options, because they are dishonest. Until memories begin accruing, the robots of Westworld cannot live meaningfully; they cannot develop perduring selves capable of choice, because denied the data needed to face the world and themselves. The characters of Eternal Sunshine, failing to fix themselves, are merely left less able to navigate their world and their souls, given their maps’ empty patches. Still, we sometimes meet our limits: self-delusion is a thoroughly human maneuver. Some truths seem too strong for us. We can swallow them only watered down.
Some facts when faced seem to paralyze us, Medusa-like. After a traumatic event, people sometimes comment that they can’t believe it. They don’t mean that in the way they don’t believe in Santa Claus: they do believe it, or else they wouldn’t respond to it. They say this because they cannot make sense of the event; it does not fit meaningfully into the known world, as a mere part of the reality in which every real thing finds its place. For a time, it creates its own surreal parallel dimension. It takes time for people to fit things back together—to reintegrate the world and thereby to reintegrate themselves as human beings capable of action.
Recovery is nonsense because this reintegration involves a rethinking of the world and rearrangement of oneself. Reentering the normal cannot be return to the status quo ante. Lee’s ex-wife Randi (played fantastically by Michelle Williams) has from outward appearances moved on, with a new husband and new baby. The movie’s best scene (discussed by Lonergan here) shows Randi encountering Lee on the street, proposing to meet, tearfully confessing she deserves to “burn in hell” for the things she said about him (we are left wondering what that was). “My heart was broken. It’s always gonna be broken. And I know yours is broken, too.” Randi is managing better than Lee but has not recovered.
Someone outside the epicenter of a trauma sees that it causes loss of perspective and thus lends itself to extreme emotions and confused responses, and knows these will fade. But for the person inside it, it would be misleading to say that distance is gained along with the reentry into the normal. People do learn again to enjoy the goods that are still available, and they gain a perspective allowing them to appreciate that, quite rightly, the event is not as big a deal to other people. But as the trauma moves away temporally, the event nestles closer. It moves inward, despite the distance, incorporated into the person privately. So, it’s not just that Lonergan uses flashbacks in his movie to tell Lee’s story: a portrayal of Lee requires flashbacks.
Which is why we’d be wrong to hope for recovery and closure for Lee, since to live humanly, he has to continue forever with the event inside him. We hope, instead, for a reentry into the world of goods still available to him. For we mourn only because the thing destroyed was good. Having children—or dedicating oneself to any deeply loving relationship—is dangerous, since one’s good becomes dependent on something so fragile and so particular. The reality of particular, vulnerable goods is what gives trauma meaning, and it is the persistence of goods in the world that trauma obscures most of all. That is where Lee is caught.
The weight of his own culpability has been suffocating the goods remaining for him, though some hope for reentry peeks through. We cheer as Lee and Patrick gradually rekindle a relationship. The angry, sarcastic teenager develops some awareness of his uncle’s suffering and, by the end, is tearful at the prospect of Lee’s ceding custody of him to someone else. Lee has begun taking up the role of an affectionate and helpful guardian. Hope springs, and Lonergan plays us happy music. Then Lee has a dream—the kind that haunts and blesses bereaved parents—of his children. “Daddy,” his beautiful girl asks, “Can’t you see we’re burning?”
Transferring guardianship, he confesses, “I can’t beat it.” Lonergan denies us a cathartic moment, since any tidy closure, happy or sad, would falsify the phenomenon. Lee is not the classical tragic hero, since he is not better than most nor is he conclusively defeated in the end. But Lonergan has given us a beautiful and realistic tragedy.
At sea, in the film-opening flashback, a self-deceived Lee brags playfully to the seven-year-old Patrick as he learns to fish. Understanding the world makes Lee uniquely capable of helping the child live safely and happily: “it makes all my actions, as I move through the world—I do things better because I see it all laid out like a map.” Human understanding does indeed permit human action, but there are limits to both. And it is the job of tragedies to display them. Tragedies, in mapping the soul, help us remember there are spots best marked, “Here be dragons.”
This essay was originally published at Law and Liberty on December 30, 2016.