Margaret (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Declan McGrath
Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan; starring Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, Mark Ruffalo, Jeannie Berlin, and Jean Reno. Blu-ray, color, 150 min., and DVD, color, 180 min. A Fox Searchlight release.
“A director’s nightmare” is probably a reasonable description of the postproduction of Margaret. The film was shot in 2005. Director Kenneth Lonergan then reluctantly struggled to get the film down to the 150 minutes he was contractually obliged to deliver. During what must have been an acrimonious process, various editors worked at the cut (including Thelma Schoonmaker with Martin Scorsese) and arguments with the producer/financier Gary Gilbert ended up in court. Eventually in 2011, a 150-minute cut received a limited and poorly promoted release (this is the version now available on Blu-ray). Positive reaction from a number of critics, some of whom even declaredMargaret a masterpiece, and a Twitter campaign by fans has subsequently encouraged Fox to support a 180-minute cut by Lonergan. This is now available on DVD and packaged with the Blu-ray as well as on sale separately. Lonergan refuses to call this longer version a director’s cut, saying both versions are valid. Whether Lonergan genuinely believes this or is pragmatically avoiding a row with the studio, only time will tell.
Personally, I believe this must-see vision of humanity in all its complicated and contradictory messiness is clearer and more powerful in the longer version. One ofMargaret’s many achievements is its true-to-life sense of spontaneity and unpredictability, so, if you have not seen the film, avoid the spoilers to come. The central character is sixteen-year-old private-school girl, Lisa (Anna Paquin). Towards the beginning of the film, a public bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) takes a second glance at her walking along the street and she flirts back in return. A quick connection occurs even though age, social class, and education separate Lisa and the driver. In what appears to be the dream world of film, this flirtation through glass seems to be full of hopeful possibility. Lonergan defies audience expectations and shocks us with the outcome of this encounter. The distracted bus driver runs a red light and knocks over a woman crossing the road. The victim, Monica (Allison Janney), dies in the arms of young Lisa. Her cruel fate feels unfair, undignified, unstoppable.
This death is the catalyst for a story in which Lisa confronts adult life. She often comes across as selfish and solipsistic, traits that may be seen as quintessentially teenaged but Lonergan presents them as universal. Lisa’s film director father (played by Lonergan) and her actress mother (J. Smith-Cameron) both obsess about their work to the detriment of Lisa (making Margaret, among many things, an often funny and sympathetic portrayal of the neurosis associated with the artistic process). Other characters prove to be equally self-interested in equally understandable ways: the bus driver who lies to keep himself in a job, the teacher (Matt Damon) who helps Lisa and subsequently proves to be sexually interested in her, the boy (Kieran Culkin) who agrees to take her virginity and then disappoints by showing no other interest in her.
This inherent self-interest, and frequent self-dramatization, makes Lonergan’s world one where mutual connection and understanding seem unattainable. He emphasizes this separation of individuals by the framing: he encloses characters within the lines of door frames and walls, he pushes them to the side of the frame; two shots are often framed in profile, emphasizing the space in the center of frame between characters; reverse shots between characters (normally balanced in terms of framing to allow for seamless cutting) are unbalanced, thus creating a subtle disharmony.
The characters may be self-centered but Lonergan never judges them. He allows the audience to make up its own mind, a freedom rarely granted in cinema and difficult to achieve in such a material medium. His success is evident in a trawl through critical reviews of the film where Lisa and her parents have been characterized on a spectrum ranging from obnoxious to sympathetic. Such a variety of responses will hardly surprise Lonergan, since they actually affirm a thesis of Margaret that a shared understanding is often impossible in our atomized world. This theme is hilariously depicted in a classroom discussion of Shakespeare where a teacher (Matthew Broderick) grows increasingly exasperated as one student steadfastly maintains his own personal and bizarre interpretation of a line from King Lear despite the consensus argued by Broderick and other students.
These characters not only manage to evoke different responses from different people. They can simultaneously provoke a positive and a negative response from the same viewer. The characters in Margaret are so well-written and well-performed that they reach the screen already lived-in and at times even worn-out. There is a hint of Cassavetes in the way Lonergan allows them to unexpectedly shift gears emotionally without any evident motivation. It is as if they are responding to a bundle of internal hurts and grievances, piled up over years, of which they are not even aware themselves.
While Lonergan does not morally judge his characters, Lisa attempts to solve her problems by invoking the supposed moral absolute of the law. At the accident scene she tells the police that the traffic lights were green and that the dead woman was at fault. Haunted by guilt over this false statement, Lisa later changes her testimony and takes a legal case to have the driver fired—willfully ignoring the financial consequences for his family—never mind the very human circumstances of the accident. In the end, to avoid bad publicity, rather than dismiss the driver, the company settles by making a payment to a distant—and in Lisa’s eyes, money-grubbing—relative of the victim. Lisa’s quest for “justice” fails
Lisa portrays this crusade to jail the driver as a matter of principle, but Paquin’s performance and Lonergan’s direction suggest a mixture of underlying, less altruistic motivations, including Lisa’s own guilt and trauma over Monica’s death as well as her egocentric desire to be heard and become the center of her own narrative. Similarly, when Lisa’s class debates Arab terrorism, intonations of delivery and cuts to furtive looks, reveal that what on the surface is based on principles and politics is actually propelled by an undercurrent of jealousies, grievances, and clashing egos. Politics and standing on principle are often motivated by the personal
This reminder not to take moral crusades on face value can be read, in part, as a response to 9/11 and the subsequent reaction to it. Remember, Margaret was shot in 2005 and as well as the above-mentioned debates and the plot being motivated by a deadly crash, several times the terrorist attacks are evoked in shots of lone planes flying over New York, a city that features so much in the film, that it is more like a character than a location. But Margaret is much more than a reaction to the destruction of the World Trade Center. It is a sophisticated and nuanced twenty-first-century portrayal of flawed humanity trying to connect and find understanding in an individualized society where ancient certainties and communal rituals are being abandoned (Monica has no funeral, as she did not believe in organized religion).
The intense emotion never becomes unbearable. Margaret is peppered with well-observed moments of humor. Lonergan also uses self-conscious techniques that provide release; this is even more apparent in the longer version. He frequently stops the narrative with slow pans and static shots of New York cityscapes that in their vastness manage to be both beautiful and unnerving. When we are in public places, snippets of other people’s conversations often drown out Lisa’s dialogue in the sound mix. These moments place Lisa’s troubled ego as merely one of many in a city of millions, again a concept simultaneously frightening and reassuring.
In the longer version, much of the score is replaced by opera music. At times where the emotional reaction of the characters reaches an almost unbearable crescendo, the soundtrack goes mute apart from an opera track. Providing emotional release in such a manner, uses the form of the film to illustrate its thematic conclusion when an operatic performance (for which we can read art in general) offers the troubled, disconnected Lisa and her mother a transcendent moment where there is a communion between the artist and the audience. It is a cathartic moment, which the audience in the cinema, watching Margaret, also shares. Our construction of stories in art to make sense of our lives is validated, and so too is life and the relationships it offers us.
The Blu-ray is a technically good transfer, although it sometimes appears grainy with washed-out colors, which may reflect the source print. At times, the sound mix on the DVD is not as smooth, presumably because it’s postproduction lacked the resources allocated to the feature. Considering the artistic quality of this film and its intriguingly fraught postproduction process, it is unfortunate that there are no revealing extras included in the package.
Declan McGrath is a filmmaker and editor who has written two books on the craft of cinema (Screencraft: Scriptwriting and Screencraft: Editing and Post-Production). He has taught film at University College Dublin and Queens University Belfast.
To purchase Margaret, click here.
Copyright © 2012 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 1