Principal photography for writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret began in 2005. It was Lonergan’s sophomore directorial effort, following the acclaimed You Can Count on Me (2000), which earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. In between the two, Lonergan received a second Oscar nod for his co-scripting of Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002). With a cast that includes Anna Paquin, Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, Jean Reno, and Matthew Broderick, Margaret was a highly anticipated effort from the auteur.
After years of reediting and legal problems, the film was finally released to a total of 14 theaters in late 2011. It grossed just $46,495. The torturous process of bringing this drama to the big screen—and now DVD—is far beyond the scope of this review. Joel Lovell’s June 19, 2012 piece in The New York Times offers a detailed look at the disputes and lawsuits that plagued the post-production of Margaret. It’s a fascinating look at just how wrong things can go. Now that it’s finally available, is the movie worth watching?
The answer is an unequivocal yes. Margaret offers searing emotion, bolstered by exceptional performances by Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, and Jeannie Berlin. Weighty themes are thoughtfully explored throughout the film’s two and a half hour running time, including guilt, teenage angst, parenting, and anti-Semitism. But there is one big caveat. Apparently resulting from the labored editing process, many scenes are choppy, seemingly ending too soon. Loose ends are left untied by the film’s conclusion, which is somewhat unsatisfying. But the journey is well worth taking, as Lonergan’s unerring ear for incisive, subtext-laden dialogue makes the story compelling.
Lisa Cohen (Paquin) is a sharp young woman who has difficulty applying herself at the private New York City high school she attends. She lives with her mother Joan (Smith-Cameron), a self-absorbed stage actress. The two don’t get along like they once did. The main thrust of the story begins with Lisa witnessing a fatal bus accident. She tries to comfort the dying woman (Allison Janney) in her final moments. It’s one of the most genuinely harrowing depictions of an automobile accident I’ve ever seen.
Lisa is soon overcome by intense guilt after lying to the police who questioned her as a witness. She says the traffic light was green and that the woman was crossing against the signal. In fact, Lisa had been distracting the bus driver (Ruffalo). She liked his cowboy hat and wanted him to stop so she could find out where he got it. Not understanding why this teen girl was chasing his bus, the bemused driver had his eyes on her, rather than the stop light. Not surprisingly, the driver tells the same lie to the police in a separate statement.
From that point on, Margaret proceeds as a meticulous character study as Lisa tries to come to terms with the consequences of her decision. She begins reaching out to various people connected to the victim, most significantly the woman’s best friend Emily (Berlin). Lisa and the grieving Emily form a unique bond. Once Lisa confesses that she fabricated her statement, Emily would have had every reason to be disgusted with her. Part of her certainly seems to be, but she also recognizes a confused teen trying to do the right thing. Jeannie Berlin, an actress who works infrequently but was Oscar-nominated for her supporting performance in The Heartbreak Kid (1972), delivers powerful work here. She conveys Emily’s mixed feelings about Lisa in an entirely uncompromising, yet very sympathetic, way.
This is also a story about a broken bond between a mother and daughter. J. Smith-Cameron, seriously unlikeable early on as Lisa’s flighty mother, mines a deep emotional vein as she communicates just how badly Joan wishes to reconnect with her daughter. In a somewhat superfluous subplot, Joan begins dating a businessman (Reno) who is a fan of her acting. There isn’t much chemistry between the two (which I believe was entirely intentional), but Joan is desperate for a meaningful relationship. Theirs takes a surprising turn, but one that feels somewhat intrusive to the film’s primary focus.
Among the other underdeveloped threads is a curiously inert bit involving Matt Damon as one of Lisa’s teachers. She seems to trust him and confides in him what has been going on regarding the accident. Damon simply isn’t given anything to do except listen to Lisa’s concerns. I’m not sure what exactly Lonergan had in mind with this. Several scenes involving Lisa in class, debating topics with her fellow students ranging from Shakespeare to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are intriguing and well-acted but don’t really serve the overall narrative in any meaningful way. They reveal Lisa to be a smart, thoughtful student, despite her slipping grades. Paquin’s consistently strong performance keeps these scenes compelling, but they don’t add up to enough to justify their inclusion at the expense of a clearer denouement.
I understand the Blu-ray version of Margaret includes both the theatrical cut and an extended alternate cut that adds some 30 minutes to the running time. I would have loved to have screened this version, but unfortunately the screener DVD provided by the distributor only has the theatrical version. Maybe the answers to my questions are revealed in the longer cut. I plan to revisit the film in its longer form, which should say something about how strongly I reacted to the compromised theatrical version. As it stands on DVD at 150 minutes, Margaret is a film whose reach exceeds its grasp. But Lonergan’s probing exploration of ethically tricky situations, not to mention his ability to draw the best from his cast, makes this one easy to recommend.