‘Manchester by the Sea’ and the Nature of Guilt

[This essay discusses plot points of Manchester by the Sea in full.]


As the credits began to roll at the end of Manchester by the Sea, the newest film from playwright-turned-writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, I was struck by how oddly hollow I felt. The movie felt in every way, like the kind of cinematic experience that should have shaken me. I cried at Arrival, after all, and that movie was nowhere near as personal to me as the story at the heart of Manchester by the Sea. I was disappointed, though I loved the film, but purposefully kept myself from thinking about it too much. It was until nearly 36 hours later, when I sat down to podcast about the film for The Film Stage, that my heart began to race, my throat tightened, and my hands shook. I felt on the verge of collapse. Here, at last, was the rush of emotion that I had been actively fighting off.

Most films, with their trappings of fiction and their neat narratives, allow for a distance that makes them safe to engage with in the moment. You can see something that resonates with you and remain outside of it through the magic of cinematic empathy. You make that experience the experience of the character, and you can see that ways in which they deal with it are different from your own actions. Will in Good Will Hunting is a math genius going to a kooky therapist. Dr. Banks in Arrival is trying to speak to aliens. They may be dealing with abuse or loss, but they also have more fantastical and specific issues that mask these pains and give them a reason to go on.

Manchester by the Sea removes these emotional buffers, stripping away plot elements that would make grief and loss just another bump on the road to a fulfilling life. Instead, it makes grief, guilt, and self-persecution the realities of continued existence. Rather than becoming dragons to be slayed, these states of being become the cost of remaining alive at all. The price that must be payed at the dawning of each new day. Not elements of the story, but the story itself.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) returns to his childhood home of Manchester to tend to his brother Joe’s estate in the wake of Joe’s sudden death due to heart failure. Part of this responsibility ends up being looking after Joe’s son, Lee’s nephew Patrick. Joe named Lee as Patrick’s legal guardian in his will, with the expectation that Lee could move back to Manchester to look after him. This idea is unthinkable to Lee, who to this point in the movie has been shown to be fairly listless, a bit of a drinker, but who seems to have no real reason to avoid his hometown as much as he has.

During this scene, however, we learn the reason why Lee has avoided Manchester so vehemently. Lonergan inserts memories into the present day narrative of his film in much the same way that memories insert themselves into our own day-to-day reality. They bubble to the surface and overwrite the moments of the present with their replay, springing up as needed to give context to the decisions we make and the emotions we feel. Sitting in that lawyer’s office, the prospect of a return to Manchester lingering in the air, Lee’s mind – in a defensive blitz – rushes him with the memory of the night he killed his family.

Of course people in Lee’s life would argue with that phrasing. After a night of drinking and cocaine use, Lee built a fire in his fireplace to keep his family warm and added some logs on before going to buy more beer. Neglecting to place the screen in front of the fire, a log rolled out and set the house ablaze, and while the firemen were able to save his wife, his three small children died.

It would be easy to see this instance as merely a convenient narrative stumbling block keeping Lee from doing what his brother wished if it weren’t for the fact that this very clearly becomes what the movie is about. Lee’s brother Joe had been diagnosed with a heart defect, his death a foregone conclusion in the hands of chance, and so his loss, while upsetting, is nothing that people hadn’t been prepared for. The death of Lee’s family, however, was a mistake, one that Lee is responsible for, and one that he can never correct. One that he can never heal from. It is more than backstory, it is his everyday reality.

A truly traumatic experience never allows itself the distance to become a memory. The details never fade, and the emotions never sublimate into a recollection of feeling. Trauma lingers on like a poison in the folds of the brain, solid and true, waiting for the right synaptic spark to act once more and draw you back into the moment. It becomes, with time, easier to deal with this presence, but you are never truly free of it despite how you may appear or feel.

This is what happens to Lee when he relives the memory of that night again. After giving his statement to the police he is released to his family, and the look of confusion and shock on his face is palpable and true. He has done a terrible thing, and here the face of societal retribution is telling him that he is free to go. In the lobby of the police station he grabs a gun from a cop and attempts to kill himself, but the gun’s safety, an unloaded round, and the quick reaction of those around him stops him. From this moment on, he is a prisoner in his own continuing life, doomed to be protected from his own crime by the understanding of those around him.

In April of 2007 I asked a friend if he could drive me home from a party. We were off campus and I couldn’t park my car next to my building – my lot permit meant that I had to park on the other side of campus and walk. It was late, and I was tired, and so I asked him to follow me in my car and drop me at my building once I’d parked. He could then return to the party. It was a simple plan, seamlessly executed, until he was picked up by the police for drunk driving just as we were pulling into the lot for me to park. I waited with a friend at the station for hours, and offered to take him back to the party, but he wanted to get his car. I parked, we collected his car, and he began to drive me to my dorm, not having gone more than a quarter of a mile before the same cops pulled him over again. This time, they told me not to bother following – he’d be in lockup for a while.

Two days later my friend was found dead in his own home.

In the near decade of time that has passed between then and now I have been unable to convince myself that if I hadn’t been exceedingly, almost comically lazy, my friend would still be alive. The guilt and the shame, once such a sharply defined and independent part of my life, have long since turned into the blood that runs through my veins. Counselors and friends and family have all rallied around me to tell me that it wasn’t my fault, that I couldn’t have known what would happen. Pure as their intentions were, they were actually much more damaging than recrimination.

Lee Chandler couldn’t have known what would happen when he left his house with that fire unattended. People do just such a thing all the time, much as people get into cars after a few drinks every day. Intention is a powerful mitigating factor in most situations, but to a person who honestly believes themselves guilty of contributing to the death of another person intention is meaningless.

We as a society believe that guilt is something to be expunged and forgiven. “It’s not your fault” is a magic incantation we deploy as a means of washing away the blood our loved ones imagine stains them. Often times, our movies and novels hinge on someone being able to forgive themselves, to see the wrongheadedness of believing that they are to blame. This realization “cures” them. It’s a nice idea.

Manchester by the Sea understands that it is not always the case, though. It feigns at this direction in a particularly devastating scene where Lee’s ex-wife delivers what should be a cathartic message. She tries to apologize to Lee for what she said to him following the fire, to tell him what film and TV and narrative arts of all kind have told us people like this need to hear. Lee shuts down, though, barely able to speak or even walk, and removes himself from the situation, more damage having been done to him than before. We don’t want to hear apologies. We don’t want forgiveness or exoneration. We want absolution. We want to be held accountable, to be punished, and to serve our time as a means of expressing and exorcising the guilt within us. After a certain point, though, that ceases to be an option.

From that moment on all that we have left is the fact of our continued existence. We have the misery and the guilt inside of us, and the knowledge that so long as we feel the sting of that vivid memory we are doing the only thing that we can do to pay our debt to those we harmed. To lose that, to have people try to take it away from us, would be to forgive ourselves. But we were the only ones willing to hold ourselves accountable to begin with, and since we were the ones who transgressed there is no way to know whether that forgiveness is honestly earned or simply our fragile spirit demanding to be released from its just punishment. So it never stops.

Most honest of all is the moment when Lee, talking to the police, relates how he thought about how he had maybe left the screen off of the fireplace, but decided not to turn around and check. He is leaning on every poor choice he made to give the world at large a chance to judge and punish him before he is forced to do it himself. The world doesn’t take its chance. It forfeits that responsibility to the man most ill-equipped to handle it.

I remember waking up the morning after my friend’s arrests and thinking about how I ought to call him to check in on him. But I was tired, and I was busy, and I couldn’t bare to imagine how angry he would be with me. So I made excuses to call him another time. That weekend I’d reach out and see how he was holding up. I’d apologize and make things right, but only after another day or two. The day that followed was the day he died.

We find reasons like that to add time to our sentences. We relish in finding new evidence against ourselves. We will do it for as long as we live, probably, because what other choice do we have? How could you not want to punish us? How could you let us go after what we did? How could you do that to us? To them? The mechanisms of justice, both man-made and spiritual, seem to have abandoned us to our own devices.

Manchester by the Sea is a marvel for many reasons, but I find the emotional truth of it to be the most meaningful of its achievements. Lots of movies tell us we become stronger in the broken places, or that time heals all wounds, or that talking it out will help. Very few have the courage to show us a character who lives his life, can take charge of a situation when he must, but who can still say, with utter conviction, “I can’t beat this,” and be comfortable in letting them be right without that lingering reality being an existential punishment for some character defect.

Lee has a job. A home. He loves and supports his family as best he can. I have a job, a house, a wife and child who I love and support as best I can. Being able to say “I can’t beat this” isn’t a failure. It’s a truth that has helped me to do as well as I have, and it’s a truth that may very well be with me until the day I die. That knowledge of my powerless next to “beat” it and the accompanying ambivalence about whether or not that is something I want “fixed” is how I have become who I am. It is not an obstacle, it is a piece of me.

I’ve spent nearly a decade looking for the right kind of understanding, and Manchester by the Sea may be as close as I ever get.