Written and Directed By: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, Jeannie Berlin, Jean Reno, Allison Janey, Kieran Culkin, Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, John Gallagher Jr., Rosemarie DeWitt, Matthew Broderick, Hina Abdullah, Kenneth Lonergan, Michael Ealy, and Krystin Ritter.
Director of Photography: Ryszard Lenczewski, Editor: Anne McCabe, Production Designer: Dan Leigh, Original Music: Nico Muhly
Rated: R for language, sex, drugs, and a bit of violence.
The key scene in Margaret, an epic yet personal drama of trauma and grief in New York City, involves a class discussion of a poignant line from Shakespeare’s King Lear. The teacher (Matthew Broderick) asks for an interpretation of the line “As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods.” A couple of students give the usual interpretation: our lives might seem important to us, but perhaps in a greater scheme of things, we are nothing. But one student disagrees. If we are nothing to the gods, then why do they give us so much attention? Perhaps we are more, he demands. But the teacher won’t have it, “A number of scholars,” he decrees, “Have confirmed this interpretation.” “But why?” the student fights back, as if he’s fighting for his life. Why must our lives be so small and so feeble in the large scheme of things?
It’s one of a dozen bravura scenes in the second feature by Kenneth Lonergan, who made a splash in 2000 with his drama You Can Count On Me. You may note the 11 year gap, and if you see Margaret (which Fox Searchlight has quietly shoved into theaters as quickly and quietly as possible), you may notice how young stars like Anna Paquin and Matt Damon look. Mr. Lonergan shot this messy drama back in 2005, with a contractual obligation to bring the film in at two and a half hours. For years, he struggled to find the right cut, and things got messy with two lawsuits, and even Martin Scorsese coming in to help him find that perfect cut. After years of battle, Mr. Lonergan has finally, unsatisfactory, found a cut that runs in the legal running time, though perhaps not his final vision. And it’s a shame, because as messy and disjointed as Margaret is, it’s a fascinating deeply confused film about the loss of innocence and the transformation of guilt.
The title Margaret does not refer to Ms. Paquin’s Lisa, but instead to a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall.” Lisa is a 17-year-old girl living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with her brother and single mother Joan (J. Smith Cameron), who is preparing for a role in a new play. Margaret is a flippant young woman not that far from the role Ms. Paquin played in 25th Hour, young, combative, flirtatious, but ultimately innocent. A nerdy classmate that helped her cheat on a math test asks her out on a date, which she plays coy against.
Things however come to a crashing start, literally, when Lisa becomes involved in the death of a woman (Allison Janey), who is hit by a bus. Lisa holds onto the woman, covered in blood and missing a leg, trying to bring peace when nothing can be done. When giving her statement to the police, Lisa lies about the red light the bus crossed, thus freeing the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) she knew was at fault.
It is the guilt of this accident that slowly palpitates over the film’s running time, as Lisa first ignores her error and then slowly involves herself in the life of the woman by befriending the woman’s best friend (Jeannie Berlin, extraordinary) and confronting the issue head on. But Margaret is about so much more than its narrative, with its long meditative shots, constant illusions to art and opera, and multiple narratives. Lisa and her mother fight back and forth as they struggle to connect (“Human connection is impossible,” Lisa combats with pretensiousness), as she struggles to deal with her performance and a new boyfriend (Jean Reno as the calmest, nicest man you’ve ever met).
Shots of the Manhattan skyline pepper the film’s interludes, including one not-so-subtle shot of a plane flying across the air. Margaret’s focus on grief as a 9/11 allegory might seem a bit simplistic, especially with the film’s intense political debates between Lisa and a Syrian student (Hina Abdullah, unforgettable for her small part), but Mr. Lonnergan never boils it down to a simple 1:1 ratio. To him, grief and acceptance are a messy process by which there is no satisfaction. Lisa constantly searches for something, anything to make it better. When she and the best friend meet with a lawyer who offers a lot of advice but not much hope, she keeps pressing on and on. She needs to know that things have consequences, that there is meaning in death.
Mr. Lonnergan plays with the idea of the loss of innocence throughout Lisa’s teenage life and the young Ms. Paquin totally captures the spirit of teenage youth as she constantly switches between self-assured mess and destructive neurotic. She screams at the top of her lungs, spits out words faster than any screwball comedy, and fights back tears constantly. She is an epitome of youthful destruction. The rest of the cast is very good too, and the film has a number of minor roles relegated to now big stars like Rosemarie DeWitt, Michael Ealy, and in a blink and you miss it, Kristen Ritter (she appears in the background of the frame for one shot, without a single word of dialogue).
Margaret, because it is a messy film about our messy reflection on tragedy, is certainly a mess, and not everything congeals together. A subplot involving Matt Damon as one of Lisa’s teachers seems cut short, and the film’s final few sequences, which attempt to reach some sense of resolution between some of the characters, falls short of hitting the emotional peaks it should. But can Mr. Lonnergan reach that point, or is part of his point that it does feel unsatisfactory? It’s hard to say—I hope someday we’ll see his full-fledged cut of the film (and Mr. Scorsese’s as well), but part of Margaret is that we all attempt to be operatic in our lives, as one person chides Lisa for doing. We all want to be big characters, and have others see our personal dramas observed by others in our attempts to feel important, to feel something (as Mr. Lonnergan lets us see that nerd shed a single tear when Lisa later rejects him). But nothing can ever make everything better, and no admittance of guilt can ever make tragedy okay. Margaret is a disaster of a film about the nature of what it means to live through disaster.