Sunday, October 9, 2011


I have chased "Margaret." I have followed this white whale, from its production in 2005, to its release two weeks ago. The product of playwright Kenneth Lonergan, his second film following 2000's "You Can Count On Me," "Margaret" was meant to be a sprawling, epic tale of survivor's guilt in the wake of 9/11. However, Lonergan's script was soon revealed to be far too massive, and with a contractual obligation to turn in a cut that ran two and a half hours, Lonergan found himself unable to trim his work beyond three hours.

Length of a film is something about which I've always fretted. A great picture is a great picture, even if it runs past 180 minutes. But more often than not, movies overstay their welcome, some even at the ninety or one hundred minute mark. But upon seeing what I'm to gather is an incomplete, released version of "Margaret," I realized I could have sat through an eight hour cut.

Portions of "Margaret" are absolutely heart-breaking. Movies tend to spotlight the grieving process as something overly symmetrical in relation to tragedy. It's a three-act structure, and we can overcome all/some odds with time, possibly alienating some in the process. It's a bit messier in "Margaret," when vain high schooler Lisa Cohen accidentally distracts a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), resulting in a gruesome accident that ends the life of a passerby (Allison Janney, shattering in her single scene). Superficially, she's a hormonal mess, trying to react to what she thinks, what she thinks she's supposed to think, and what others perceive. But in the wake of this awful tragedy that doesn't leave her blameless, she makes perfect sense.
She acts out, of course, but Anna Paquin's performance (performance of the year, by the way, though that year may have been '05) radiates both impulsive selfishness and innate intelligence. Lisa is a passionate, connected student, but one who can't resist the vices of pot, boys and parties. With an actress single mother stressed from both the opening of her new play and a pushy new suitor, Lisa is essentially left to her own devices, rudderless to make sense of the situation.

If anything, this is a spiritual successor to "Do The Right Thing," in that Lisa's moral compass is useless in navigating this bed of thorns. If she were to tell the police that the bus driver moved through a red light, he would lose his job and cripple his family, and so she distorts the truth. But soon her vision widens, and she seeks justice, vengeance, or some amalgamation of the two, returning to the police and fighting through a disinterested bureaucracy to bring order to the universe. Darkly funny is the seed of this idea, that Lisa, living in New York City, is so myopic that she thinks the tragedy that haunts her dreams has knocked something loose in the fabric of existence, even if such tragedies occur every day.

"Margaret" sadly feels cosmetically choppy, as scenes feel truncated, montages stretch on a bit too much, and side references speak to a larger world, an in-joke without a reference point, a dropped subplot. But a film is not an equation, and "Margaret" is a magnificently imperfect film. It's impossible to not understand the complex class issues that emerge when Lisa confronts the angered bus driver. When Jean Reno, as a Latin lover (just go with it, dammit) gets into an argument with a Jewish woman over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it's both funny and perceptive in the ways where racism and politics cross paths. And, ultimately, there's the ultimate sadness of Lisa, wrapped up in her personal disaster, leaving a trail of tears and broken emotions behind her, as everyone tries and fails to help this lost, inarticulate girl. If it's still playing, do make plans to catch a screening of a towering achievement in American cinema.

1 comment:

  1. "When Jean Reno, as a Latin lover (just go with it, dammit)"

    A long while ago my favourite movie was Leon and it always confused me that Leon was supposed to be Italian when he was blatantly French. Since then I've always watched out for both Natalie Portman and Jean Reno with Portman rarely getting suitable roles and Jean Reno rarely getting substantial roles.

    You've mentioned Margaret a few times before and I've always thought you were referring to the upcoming Meryl Streep movie about Margaret Thatcher (which I understand is actually titled "The Iron Lady"). I hope that doesn't confuse other people too.

    As for film length, there's a few films that are very long indeed and I simply had never noticed the runtime. I never realised until recently that The Matrix is over 2 hours long. Nor did I realise that Jackie Brown was 2 1/2 hours long. I saw both of these in the cinema and the runtime was not a problem in either of them. (I'd say that the runtime was much more obvious in the LOTR movies....)

    I will look forward to seeing Margaret for myself. :)