The behind-the-scenes story of Margaret could make for a compelling feature all its own. It began filming in 2005. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan had spent two years on the script. It was the follow-up to his Oscar-nominated 2000 film, You Can Count on Me. The only requirement was that Lonergan turn in a cut of the movie that was under 150 minutes. His first cut was three hours. The producers paid their own editor to chop the film down to two hours. Then came the flurry of lawsuits and countersuits between the producers and Lonergan. No less a cinematic statesman than Martin Scorsese was asked to take a look at the movie and edit it down to 150 minutes (Lonergan labored on the script for Gangs of New York). Several protracted years later, Fox Searchlight dumped the 150-minute Scorsese cut in a handful of theaters. Then a funny thing happened. The rare critics who got a chance to see Margaret flipped for it. Lonergan’s initial three-hour cut is now available on Blu-ray. It’s a happier ending than any of the participants might have imagined only a couple years ago. I’ve been eager to see Margaret for myself, to see if all these arty critics were being a bit overzealous in their praise. Days later, I can’t get it out of my head and I’m sure others would suffer the same wonderful affliction.
Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) is a privileged New York City teenager who usually gets what she wants. She’s on the hunt for a cowboy hat when she spots a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) with one. She runs alongside the bus, trying to ask him about the hat. It’s just enough to distract the driver. He runs a red light and plows into a pedestrian, Monica Patterson (Allison Janney). As a crowd forms and help is called for, Lisa holds the broken woman during her final, hellish moments. Afterwards, she lies to the police to protect the driver. The guilt eats away at her. She lashes out, she hurts others, she butts heads with her stage actress mother (J. Smith-Cameron), and she’s looking for anything to cope. Eventually Lisa decides to come clean and seek justice but it just might be too late.
Margaret is a messy, imperfect film, over-indulgent and cluttered, but man does it stick with you. It sits in your stomach. You can’t shake it. You just keep thinking back on it. And after a while, the flaws itself start to transform into virtues themselves. The film is messy and all over the place but my God does it excel at recreating, in startling spasms of uncontrollable emotion, the life of an American teenager. There is no off switch when it comes to emotions, and when you’re young everything seems like the end of the world. Like Lisa, you alternate between self-involvement and idealism, and you haven’t hardened to the way the world works just yet. The movie, thematically, latches onto the same wavelength as its heroine. Lisa is a flawed creature, deeply hurting and trying to come to terms with her own responsibility and guilt for the accident. It just so happens that she makes mistakes trying to deal with that pain, and innocent people get hurt, and people we once thought were noble reveal their own impulses and vulnerabilities. Whether she’s sympathetic as a protagonist doesn’t matter, though even when she hurt others I never found her less than fascinating. She feels everything so intensely, and those intense feelings bleed into other areas of her life. She can be woefully self-involved and callous at times, but she can also be self-possessed and fearless in a moral quagmire. At one point, a character argues that teenagers would govern better than adults because teens are still idealistic and proactive, even if their actions are dismissed as naive. Lisa wants to find justice in the world somehow, so she can make sense of this random tragedy. She still clings to the belief, even as the film becomes a messy legal battle (one of its many genres Lonergan dabbled in).
There are plenty of storylines and themes and messages that Lonergan wishes to weave into a seamless patchwork version of our intolerable, detached, self-involved culture. The film is something of a time capsule, way back in 2005, and the post-9/11 anxieties and civil insecurity is also dealt with in interesting ways. Lisa’s social studies class repeatedly descends into shouting matches, debates that reduce the opposition in the simplest terms. After a while, all we’re doing is trying to out-shout the other and no one is listening anymore. Lisa comments that our culture feels so disconnected and that people have stopped relating to one another. Of course this also extends to her as well, as she confuses her feelings and those around her. The mother-daughter dynamics are a fascinating character insight and one of the better onscreen relationships I’ve seen in years. You can clearly see where Lisa gets some of her showboat tendencies. Both mother and daughter have stopped being able to relate to one another, and Lisa can wield sarcasm like a weapon, as teenagers are wont to do to their parents. Mom is dating a man she doesn’t particularly connect with, and yet she enjoys the company and the desire to be wanted. Is that enough to fulfill her gnawing sense of loneliness? Lisa’s father is the type to run from conflict, and yet the man is just as self-absorbed and hurtful as anyone else in the film. Except he’s an adult and, theoretically, should know better. In that regard, the movie reminds me of the excellent Little Children; this is a movie of mitigated personal responsibility from people of all ages. If this is the way the world works, then why not give teenagers a chance?
The opera is a reoccurring motif for the film, and it’s a strong artistic association for the film because Lonergan sort of gives his characters arias with which to work. The emotions are sent to overdrive, the arguments are full-blast, and the dialogue lands in that articulate, hyper-verbal territory but isn’t self-consciously snappy. It’s hard to quantify but it’s dialogue that’s painful and revealing and, while beautifully crafted, can come across as genuine. The entire movie is the same way. This is a drama where, in Spinal Tap terms, the emotions go to eleven. It’s a big bleeding heart of a movie, but it’s not corny or maudlin or mawkish or TV movie sentimental. It’s fearlessly emotional and takes you on a journey with many stops. You’ll likely be horrified, thrilled, precarious, elated, angry, saddened, and frustrated.
It may be best described as a series of potent, powerful scenes rather than a traditional screenplay with a clear through line. The most memorable scene also happens to be the one that sets everything in motion – the accident. It is horrific and awful in ways that movies rarely deal with. The first image we see is a leg pinned under the bus. Oh no, we think. But then the camera continues to pan down and we see… the rest of her in a heap. Oh no, we say to ourselves again, even more aghast. We’re there for the harsh reality, the sad realization of Monica that she’s going to die (“Are my eyes open? I can’t see…”), and the shock and confusion of the situation. There’s blood shooting everywhere, no sign of help, and the woman is fading away, confusing Lisa with her deceased daughter of the same name. Lonergan makes us stay in this traumatic scene for a long time, an uncomfortable amount of time, enough that the horrible incident is burned into our memory as well, and when Lisa crusades for justice or looks for some physical or emotional escape from the trauma, we know why. It’s one of those one-scene marvels, a byproduct of near-perfection on every technical level.
This is pre-True Blood Paquin and boy does she deliver when it comes to the dramatic feats of her character. She’s convincing as a coy, too-smart-for-her-own-good teenager, she’s devastating as a lost, dour soul lashing out at the world, looking for anything to ease the pain, and even when she stumbles, she’s fascinating. Paquin goes through a variety of moods to suit the variety of tones and storylines for the film, and her performance never falters. I’m amazed at how fast she can spit out the verbiage, while crying her eyes out, and all without gasping for breath. She’s nothing short of amazing.
The rest of the movie is filled with recognizable actors in small parts, from Matt Damon (The Adjustment Bureau) as a nice guy math teacher with his own weakness, Matthew Broderick (Election) as a pompous English teacher, Jean Reno (Couples Retreat) as the off kilter suitor to Lisa’s mother, Kieran Culkin (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) as the bad boy druggie who deflowers Lisa, John Gallagher Jr. (TV’s The Newsroom) as the nice guy with the unrequited crush on Lisa, Rosemarie Dewitt (The Watch) as the bus driver’s wife, Lonergan himself as Lisa’s neglectful father, and the triumphant return to screen of Jeannie Berlin (The Heartbreak Kid) who hasn’t appeared in a movie since 1990. Berlin has the juiciest part as Monica’s closest friend and eventual confidant for Lisa. She takes on Lisa’s mission for justice, but she’s still wary of Lisa and her hyperbolic nature. She accuses Lisa of making up a garish detail (the Lisa name confusion in Monica’s last moments): “This isn’t an opera! And we are not all supporting characters to the drama of your amazing life!”
The title of the film comes from a poem called “Spring and Fall” by Gerard Manley Hopkins addressed to a grieving subject named Margret: “Ah! as the heart grows older/ it will come to such sights colder/… /It is the blight man was born for/ It is Margaret you mourn for.” When you come down to it, Lonergan’s film is about the awareness of mortality, the shock of death, the realization of the end, and our pitiful attempts to turn off the feelings more fully felt. Adults, Lonergan argues, have become hardened to the world to the frailty of life, and you question if that hardening, a natural process, is a good thing. Perhaps the dubious claim that teenagers should take a chance running the world is not without some sliver of merit. Margaret is a movie that’s hard to pin down; there’s so much going on, not all of it fully realized or satisfying I freely confess, but it’s a thrill to witness an artistic vision that’s bursting with things to say, so many things that life cannot contain them all. The 150-minute running time will be a stumbling block for some, but honestly I never felt the film drag like I do most Hollywood action thrillers of that length. When you step away, and take the film’s messiness into context, then Margaret stops being an ambitious but erratic artistic miscue and starts coalescing into something bolder, richer, and thought provoking. It took a long strange journey to get here but Margaret is a movie that deserves to be savored and debated.
Nate’s Grade: A-