Margaret (USA) Directed by Kenneth Lonergan Written by Kenneth Lonergan Starring Anna Paquin; Mark Ruffalo; Jeannie Berlin; J. Smith Cameron; Matt Damon; Jean Reno; Matthew Broderick; Olivia Thirlby; Rosemarie Dewitt; Kieran Culkin; Kenneth Lonergan; Allison Janney; John Gallagher Jr.; Sarah Steele
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By & by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep & know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
- Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1880
Whenever a film becomes well-known for controversy having little or nothing to do with the quality of the finished product, it follows that said film becomes more difficult to accurately judge based exclusively on its own merits. To some extent there are always external factors that contribute to the assessment of art, but unfortunately Margaret is now (and will perhaps be forever) best known for being the movie that took some six years to release.
Successful New York play-write Kenneth Lonergan was getting work writing big budget screenplays when in 2000 he directed his first film (from a script based on his own play), You Can Count On Me. The 1.2 million dollar indie went on to win widespread critical acclaim, including Independent Spirit awards for best film and screenplay; and Oscar nominations for Lonergan and actor Laura Linney.
Lonergan began writing Margaret in 2003, and Fox Searchlight partnered with Gary Gilbert (Cleveland Cavaliers/Quicken Loans/Rock Financial) to produce with a budget of 12.6 million. Attached Producers included the late, great Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack; and the famed Scott Rudin. Lonergan lined up an excellent cast - one that would eventually include (a pre-True Blood ) Anna Paquin; (a pre-Bourne) Matt Damon; Matthew Broderick; Mark Ruffalo; Rosemarie Dewitt; Kieran Culkin; and Olivia Thirlby. The director was given complete creative control, with the sole caveat being that he needed to produce a cut that came in under two hours and thirty minutes. Unfortunately, Lonergan’s cut ran over three hours, and so he, Gilbert, and Searchlight became involved in a complicated, protracted battle of wills involving litigation, mud slinging, and the attendant press coverage.
Though filmed in 2005 and originally slated for release in 2007, Margaret didn’t get out to theaters until 2011, and even then was shown mostly in L.A. and New York, playing in a grand total of fourteen venues (doing fifty thousand at the box office) after being re-released, and receiving little to no marketing support. In short, the film was dumped, something that became increasingly embarrassing for Fox when strong critical reaction accumulated. The theatrical version (representing one Martin Scorcese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker assisted Lonergan in creating) came in under the allotted time, though it too was also initially rejected by Gilbert, who deemed it “unreleasable”. Though he doesn’t refer to it as a “director’s cut,” the three hour plus version released on DVD represents something resembling Lonergan’s preferred version.
Margaret is a compelling look at privileged private high school student Lisa Cohen (Paquin), who witnesses a fatal car accident involving a female pedestrian (Allison Janney) and a bus driver (Ruffalo) and the psychological implications for those involved. While the primary focus is on Lisa, the film has a meandering, ensemble feel to it that contributes to the illusion that we are watching events unfold in a life-like way. The films’ length is justified if only because the intention is clearly to have an audience experiencing the film without set-up and punch line, and the constriction of the run time would likely have created a different pace. The point being, Lonergan is an artist who was quite obviously making very well thought out, intentional decisions regarding a film he had no doubt obsessively developed from inception.
One of the most interesting aspects of Margaret is that while the basic plot set-up seems like one any number of films might use as a jumping off point, Lonergan manages to make the accident simultaneously important and incidental. Some of what follows are events that are directly affected by this inciting event, though at no point do we get the idea that the plot is being driven by a need to get from point A to point B, something that differentiates it from almost everything coming out of Hollywood (and likely contributed to the issues over the release). In fact, some of the threads do not tie up at all, and in this way Margaret is not a traditional American film where true ambiguity is almost always frowned upon.
Aided by an excellent performance from Paquin, Lisa Cohen is often off-putting in the way that many young people are, full of internal conflict, contradiction, and hypocrisy; bravado and insecurity; shallowness and sensitivity; immaturity and surprising preternatural levels of understanding. As a girl from a wealthy, progressive family from the city, Lisa enjoys the cultural advantages of being surrounded by creative, well-off, educated adults, and the confidence and empowerment gained from these associations, but she has also remained in the protective womb of private schools, (and presumably) play dates, and nannies and the like. A precocious provocateur, she enjoys pushing buttons, but possesses virtually no understanding of the potential consequences of any of her words or actions. Having never been told “no” she is convinced that some of her empty-headed opinions have relevance to anyone besides herself, and in that way feels as if she very much deserves to be “heard”.
Though as audience we believe Lisa has been genuinely impacted by the violent death she witnesses, as well as her complicit involvement in it, at the same time questions arise about whether she is using the event to give voice to existing issues and gain the attention she so desperately seeks. It is not that there aren’t real emotions tied into her delayed trauma and sense of culpability, it’s just that one can never be sure with Lisa how much of her feelings are are being exaggerated, misdirected, or enhanced for her own purposes, whatever those might be. We also cannot be sure how conscious she is of her own motivations behind these actions to begin with.
Throughout the film, we touch on a number of lives. While You Can Count on Me was a brilliant look at the dysfunctional relationship between an adult brother and sister, the film (perhaps partly owing to the budget) was relatively small in scope. This film feels bigger - more characters, but it is also more existential in nature, subtly posing complicated life questions. Taking place entirely in New York City, the spectre of 9/11 is a haunting encapsulating presence throughout, the overall feeling being that of a kind of somnolent dream state, with the citizenry still in the throes of an acutely raw collective anger and sadness. The delay in the release date is all the more strange due to the fact that the the film is so closely tied into the aftermath of 9/11, and the passage of another half decade means Margaret mutates into something of a recent period piece.
The mark of superlative film-making (and perhaps this is true of all art) can perhaps be boiled down to the fact that one can watch a film and have the feeling both during and after the viewing of there being more to the work than meets the eye. A film-maker attempts to show us not only a set of characters coupled with a series of quality scenes tying effectively together, but also, through the combined forces of dialogue, photography, art design, music, editing, and sound, to relay a fully realized, resonant story populated with memorable and interesting human beings. A quality piece of cinema has a relation to the larger world, showing an audience something about their lives via the experiences of the on screen characters, and through the accumulation and co-mingling of its many disparate elements; transcending the form so that a larger set of truths/ideas emerges.
While You Can Count On Me represented a quality American Independent, it very much fitted into a kind of an established model. Margaret, on the other hand, feels more like foreign cinema that isn’t largely unencumbered by the market-place, with character motivations more enigmatic, and nuanced relationships containing no small amount of opaqueness. It is hard to know what was actually shot, though Matthew Broderick (who reportedly lent friend Lonergan money to finish the edit) and Matt Damon (who admittedly wasn’t quite as big as he is now at the time) play roles that many actors of their stature would not accept, if only because their character arcs (if they exist) are severely limited. None of the individuals we meet are particularly ‘likable’ in fact, and there is no ironic cop-out employed by many American indies (not made by the likes of Todd Solondz) when portraying disagreeable leads.
The people who populate Margaret are uniformly flawed. They don’t always use their best judgment; they don’t sensor themselves; or, they do the opposite and clam up, failing to reveal what they should to those close to them; they’re mean and weak; they lie and manipulate - and yet none of it feels like anything but true to life behavior. We view frustrating conversations between people who are trying to satisfy unspoken needs they cannot seem to attain and, as in life, there is rarely exact right and wrong, but rather human weakness, justifcations, differing agendas, and situations with various perspectives ruling the day.
Perhaps no relationship in the film is more exasperating then the one between Lisa and her single mother Joan (Lonergan’s real life wife J Smith Cameron). Middle-aged and lonely, Joan is a successful professional actress who seems to love her children, but is consumed with her career. Fragile and distracted, Joan has trouble communicating/connecting with her daughter, the two perpetually engaged in a kind of sparring session where they continue doing emotional damage to one another while seemingly (at least on some level) intending different.
Though Lisa is not exactly sympathetic, we know she misses having her father Karl (Lonergan) in her life. At a time when she desperately needs all the support she can get he is three thousand miles away. Meanwhile her custodial parent is too self-involved to be anything more than half-present. While some of Lisa’s decisions range from questionable to potentially abhorrent, in each instance there are shades of gray. Like a lot of people her age, Lisa possesses a wealth of misplaced anger and indignation, a keen sense of rich white girl entitlement, and a feeling that the world revolves around her. She is unformed, winging it in a world of adults without a solidified moral compass or enough real world experience to survive, let alone thrive.
Matt Damon is good in a small turn as Lisa’s teacher, though Matthew Broderick’s teacher role seems a little redundant. Jeannie Berlin also does well as Emily, an older woman who becomes part of Lisa’s life. J. Smith Cameron does a nice job as Joan, though one wonders (especially given the casting of some of the other leads from Lonergan’s first film) what Laura Linney might have made of the part. On the whole the performances are wonderful; the visuals solid; and the score by Nico Muhly moving and operatic (literally and figuratively) without being hyperbolic.
Margaret is a stunning accomplishment from a gifted film-maker and deserves to be recognized for the quality cinema it is as opposed to the back-story behind its post-production and release.