Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret” has the same emotional resonance and poetic understanding of a post 9/11 New York City as Spike Lee’s “25th Hour.” Yet unlike Lee’s intensely literal depiction of race and omnipresent anxieties in the tragedy’s immediate aftermath, “Margaret’s” virtues are contained within deep, complex metaphors that engulf Lonergan’s stirring character drama.
Meant to be released over five years ago but delayed due to legal battles between Lonergan and distributor Fox Searchlight Pictures over the film’s final cut (the edit I watched is the shortened, 2 ½ hour version edited by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, but the extended Director’s Cut exists on the DVD), “Margaret” is a flawed masterpiece.
This version’s editing is a mishmash of vignettes, arguments and moments out of time all surrounding one teenage girl. The movie’s length, the web of subplots and the film’s rich cast and numerous characters for me paint a lush portrait of a whole city full of grief, regrets and anxieties. If it seems to never approach a rational ending, what could sum up this new mentality we’ve lived with for 11 years now?
“Margaret’s” central character is Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), a smugly confident high school student giving off an attitude that she knows just how phony she is. On the street one day, she distracts a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), causing him to run a red light and hit a pedestrian named Monica (Allison Janney). Lisa cradles her in her last moments and feels devastated. But fearing the bus driver will be in trouble for something she caused, Lisa lies to the police and claims it was an accident free of negligence.
But this is just in the film’s first 15 minutes. For the next two-plus hours, Lisa will go through life trying to find closure and solace in battling her parents, losing her virginity, arguing with classmates and pursuing a lawsuit against the bus driver.
I get into arguments with my family all the time. It starts as a simple disagreement, and then it boils down to an argument about semantics or about the tone of voice someone is using. No one was trying to get in a fight, but the whole escalation seems so foolish that neither my family nor I can quit.
Lisa reacts this same way. She’s always trying to be conciliatory, but she ends up more abrasive. She fails to see that others are suffering because of this tragedy because she’s too wrapped in her own. One scene is revelatory in its fourth wall breaking ingenuity. Lisa says to Emily, Monica’s best friend, that in Monica’s last moments, she confused Lisa for her dead daughter. Emily lashes out, explaining that neither Monica nor all the other people she’s encountered are characters in Lisa’s elaborate soap opera. “It cares to you too easily,” she screams.
“Margaret’s” depth comes in Lisa’s reaction. For Lisa, everyone is taking things the wrong way, exaggerating the point and losing control for no reason. But after so much attacking we begin to wonder who’s really in the wrong. “Margaret” jumbles the idea of the victim. All the words are loaded. This is traumatic for everyone. Lisa’s own tension here gets at the universal confusion of New York City.
It’s such a brilliant metaphor. It all works because Lonergan’s dialogue is so in-tune with the way people really have conversations, with the way people really argue and fail to find coherence and understanding. His dialogue has subtext. The emotions and complexities are not all in the script. They exist in the interspersed editing, the unseen threads between characters, the tense political arguments heard in the classroom and other internal metaphors within the story.
One subplot that would be given a lot more weight in another story is Lisa’s crush on her Geometry teacher, here played by a significantly younger Matt Damon. The two have sex, and later Lisa confesses she had an abortion because of him. “I totally initiated the whole thing. It’s just sex,” Lisa says. Her simple admission of guilt in this occasion is exactly what the movie is building to for so long. It’s a magnificently constructed metaphor.
Lonergan elicits brave performances from the entire cast. Paquin is an eloquent, confident and even sexy performer, but she shows naiveté. She is sharp enough to reveal she is flawed. We sympathize with her, but not blindly. She’s doing some bad things to people who care about her. Consider her mother Joan, portrayed with such vulnerability by J. Smith-Cameron, Lonergan’s wife. Joan is an actress nearing a breakthrough on Broadway. She demands conviction on stage and elicits applause whenever she steps onto it. But at home she loses her cool, and we realize she too is grappling with a hardship she can’t understand. If we never fully grasp what she’s going through, it’s because we too are wrapped in Lisa’s story.
Now at this point, you may be wondering who Margaret is. Margaret is the subject of a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. “Ah! As the heart grows older/it will come to such sights colder,” the poem reads. “Margaret” carries us through a long, gradual understanding of the world. We see New York City as a vast place with problems stretching to infinity in the street lamps, the skyscrapers and the winding stairs.
Our heart grows and changes watching this film. The sights get colder, but “it is Margaret you mourn for.”