"Manchester by the Sea," and the untimely death of Lee Chandler
Above all, “Manchester by the Sea” asks if Patrick Chandler can resurrect his uncle, Lee Chandler, from a death his uncle suffered a decade ago. He can’t. It’s not that Patrick tries particularly hard, at least not in an obvious way, but watching Lee dead on the screen is haunting in a way the paste-faced Casey Affleck just knows how to play.
It takes a while for director Kenneth Lonergan to reveal why exactly Lee is dead, but the signs present themselves early. Lee goes to a bar, a conventionally attractive woman tries perhaps a little too hard to make a connection and Affleck does his best “there’s no soul left in my body” impression while she awkwardly steps away. Then he cold cocks a couple of dudes after getting hammered. That was after sleepwalking his way through the day.
In my review for “Manchester by the Sea,” which in re-reading was just not very good, I did get one thing right: Lee Chandler is probably thought of as a pretty good listener; at least, maybe that’s the first impression. My guess is he doesn’t retain a whole lot of information thrown his way.
By the time we arrive in Manchester, because of the untimely (physical) death of Lee’s brother, Joe, we still don’t know what Lee’s deal is. It takes a long time and a handful of flashbacks to get the whole picture; if you’re reading this, you already know. The pictures of the burning building and the firefighters carrying the body bags are haunting. And there’s Lee. They may as well have called his time of death right then, too.
Watching Lee Chandler is like watching a car packed with dogs plunge off a bridge. His haunting of Manchester is a slow, painful kind of horrific. Nobody wants him there in the same way you might call the Warrens to chase a specter from a haunted house; but don’t worry, the ghost doesn’t want to be there either. This is as much "Beetlejuice" as it is "The Amityville Horror."
It’s not that Patrick ever really wants Lee around. Patrick doesn’t want his life ruined and Lee sticking around is the least putrid of the possible outcomes: the ghost is a means to an end. They grow closer as the film goes on, much like a child in a horror film becomes friends with the ghost haunting the house. It’s not a malicious relationship, but it’s also not quite right.
Inarguably the best scene in the film is between Affleck and Michelle Williams. It’s one of two times in the film anyone outwardly acknowledges Lee’s broken down mental state. This exchange is what earned the pair Oscar nominations:
Randi: I’m just sorry. I love you. Maybe I shouldn’t say that. And I’m sorry —
Lee: You can say it, but — No, it’s just — I — I can’t — I gotta go
Randi: We couldn’t have lunch?
Lee: I’m really sorry. I don’t think so.
Randi: You can’t just die…!
Lee: Thank you for sayin’ everything — I’m not! But I can’t — I’m happy for you.
Randi: But honey, I see you walkin’ around like this and I just wanna tell you—
Lee: And I want… I would want to talk to you, but I can’t, I can’t…
Randi: But Lee, you gotta — I don’t know what! I don’t wanna torture you. I just wanna tell you I was wrong.
Lee: I’m trying to — You’re not. But I got nothin’ to. — Thank you for sayin’ that. But — There’s nothin’ there … You don’t understand …
Randi: That’s not true! Can’t be true…!
There are two lines from Randi that perfectly sum it up: “You can’t just die,” and “I see you walkin’ around like this.” Lee Chandler may not have been in the house when it burned down that night, but he very much died with his children. The film doesn’t let up there. To make it very clear Lee doesn’t get off the mat after this exchange, it goes one more round later on.
Patrick: So are you gonna just disappear?
Lee: You don’t have to do it. No. No. I just set it up so you can stay here. They’re really glad to have you. They love you.
Patrick: I know. I mean, they’re great…But why can’t you stay?
Lee: Come on, Patty…I can’t beat it. I can’t beat it. I’m sorry.
“I can’t beat it,” is such a dark way to end a character beat. But it's the only fair way to wrap up Lee’s character arc. This is who he is. Ghosts don’t get a happy ending; they should be happy they get an ending at all. Make no mistake about it: Lee Chandler has been a ghost for a very long time. Well, relatively speaking anyway.