For a while, it looked like Margaret was doomed to become one of those lost classics, to be tepidly received initially and seen scantly, if at all. Kenneth Lonergan, often cited as one of the two most important American playwrights of his generation (alongside Tony Kushner), writer of Gangs of New York and writer-director of 2000’s acclaimed You Can Count On Me, poured his soul into Margaret. Filmed in 2005 and caught in several lawsuits until its eventual 2011 release, Margaret went through a two-hour cut by Dylan Tichenor (Brokeback Mountain) on the money of producer Gary Gilbert, a 160 minute-cut by Martin Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker that was approved by Lonergan but not by Gilbert, and, at last, the 150 minute cut that made it to the two movie theaters that constituted its entire run. Over $12 million spent, less than $50,000 gained. Lonergan approved that cut, but it still was not the work he wanted. Margaret was about to become the next Heaven’s Gate, the film that made sure Lonergan would never make another with the same freedom or ambition, the film proclaimed by many critics as a mess (and as a masterpiece by a few), the film relegated to footnote status before, hopefully, if it was lucky, a revival decades later, not unlike the one that Heaven’s Gate recently received.
But then something remarkable happened. An online petition to release the film in more theaters and send screeners to critics groups in time for year-end voting gained a surprisingly large foothold, and although many still overlooked Margaret, it inspired the release of another, three-hour long cut, the film Lonergan always wanted and probably the one that Martin Scorsese called a “masterpiece.” The summer of 2012 created a Margaret fever in the critical world, and the film received new, universally positive attention, and some critics, most notably New York Magazine’s David Edelstein, reversed their position on the film, proclaiming it a masterpiece in spite of a negative opinion of the theatrical release. It remains to be seen if Lonergan will ever make another film considering production on a play has never been quite so nightmarish, but he waited months to get his due instead of decades, so he is lucky in that sense, as are we, for seeing the film he wanted so soon.
Even in its theatrical cut, however, Margaret is a wonderful film. Short of a masterpiece, certainly, but still one of 2011’s better releases. It’s a sprawling yet focused tale, in which Lisa (Anna Paquin, in what I don’t hesitate to call 2011’s best performance) inadvertently causes a woman to be hit and killed by a bus. It’s an absolutely harrowing scene, a beautiful and tragic portrayal of watching someone die in your arms, yourself at fault, the victim trying to communicate final, loving thoughts in a state of confusion and the other equally scared, doing everything she can to reassure the victim and still attain the information she is being told in case everything is not okay. It’s a scene just a couple minutes long, and we have no connection with the dying woman, but it is among the most memorable portrayals of incidental death I can recall ever seeing. Its power reverberates throughout the film, and we know that the memory forces Lisa to try to right a wrong she had a part in causing largely because the memory of the scene makes us hope for the same thing.
It’s almost a reverse Good Will Hunting; while Will was a genius who refused to exert himself because he feared his own possible failures, Lisa (who is no genius but is quite intelligent nonetheless) whole-heartedly believes in herself and her causes even when she doesn’t and spends the entire movie looking for something to match her good intentions. Good Will Hunting is propelled by epiphanies that help a man learn to love himself in spite of the world; Margaret lacks epiphany and forces an adolescent on the verge of adulthood to come to terms with the world she lives in despite her.
Don’t get me wrong, though, Lisa is far from a symbol. She’s still a high-school girl, and that means she struggles with romance, fights with her mother (her father is across the country, planning a horseback riding trip to bring out Lisa and her kid brother), and sits through both classes that bore her and classes that provoke her (in many ways). But mostly, Lisa wants to right her wrong and ensure that the driver does not kill anyone else. That means she calls the victim’s relatives, seeks out her daughter, even confronts the driver some time later, and eventually settles for working with the victim’s close friend Emily to bring a lawsuit. Thanks to one of the best screenplays in 21st century cinema and the brilliance of Paquin and her supporting cast (which ranges from Ruffalo as the driver to J. Smith-Cameron as Lisa’s mother Joan to Matt Damon as Lisa’s teacher/crush), not a single scene is overwrought or unimportant. Margaret, like life itself, approaches flashes of genius like an asymptote, getting close enough for you to feel it but never quite letting you put your finger on it. What that means, however, is that little moments take an additive importance, influencing the outbursts not just of Lisa, but also her mother, Emily, and everyone else. The little things create a portrait of holistic, realistic people. In Emily’s outburst, she tells Lisa that people aren’t supporting characters in the opera of her life. The line hits with the dramatic irony that only a playwright can create—this is Lisa’s story, and everyone else is a supporting character in that sense, but they are also too complex to simply be character foils, and they all struggle with problems of their own.
The only one of the “supporting” matters that approaches superfluity is Joan’s ongoing relationship with Ramon (Jean Reno), a man with little personality who insists that there is a connection between he and Joan that we never see.* Margaret is littered with such attempts to connect that go down much easier; Lisa and her mother alternately clash aggressively and converse tenderly (usually about Joan’s job as a stage actress or Lisa’s involvement in the accident); classroom discussions range from what “Shakespeare” meant and whether Shakespeare or his character really meant it to the close-to-home politics of 9/11 (remember, this was filmed in 2005 and was a script two years in the making) and the Israel-Palestine crisis; Lisa’s relationship with her teacher feels as much like a replacement for a father that exists only on the phone as it does a crush. Although many of these sub-plots are less interesting than the moral drama at the film’s core (the exception is the mother-daughter drama, which is tense, frantic, and realistic at every turn), it suffices to say that there is not a scene that goes by that is not add to the difficulties of connection in some way, all in far more perceptible and less tacky ways than Joan’s relationship. In contrast to the innumerable miscommunications it portrays, Margaret rarely muddles its point. Even punctual shots of New York, the skyline, and Central Park are, despite being half-baked, far from detrimental.*
In every scene, Lonergan knows exactly what he is doing. His dialogue often takes full command of the film, but even then, Lonergan never forgets that he is working in cinema this time. Margaret is far from theatrical, with a penchant for slow-motion that, in its best moments, personifies Lisa’s inability to escape guilt as well as her difficulty in being able to go anywhere on an emotional plane in a world that fails to understand her. Likewise, he uses his camera to unite distant spaces both to illustrate a consequent contrast (as when he shows Joan on the stage) or a communicative near-miss (as when Lisa receives a phone call from a friend at a time that, to avoid spoilers, is less than convenient for her). Lonergan knows that art, in its own unique way, seeks to bring us together, to touch us in a way that even those closest to us cannot, and his regular manipulation of space illustrates that. Lisa disdains Joan’s job, prompting Ramon to ask if she would “prefer a world without plays and films.” A devastating finale answers that question and the question of connection as a whole. It’s a mad world that Lisa has been pushed into, and many characters ask, directly and indirectly, if her passion for doing the right thing will stay with her or if it will, as it does for the titular character (from a poem recited within), grow colder as she grows older. Whether it does or not, what we see is every facet of a life in a particularly difficult time in which idealism absolutely must result in justice and love, and it’s a depiction so startlingly truthful that it is bound to instill a sense of wonder in you despite its flaws.
*Although I have not yet seen it, the extended cut apparently fleshes out both the relationship the mother has with Ramon and the role of New York City in the drama, in addition to many other changes. When I watch this cut, I will probably write about the film again.