Kenneth Lonergan’s latest effort has been mired in mild controversy for nearly a decade, the subject of some as-yet unresolved lawsuits, and, more recently, a sort of acid test for the integrity/gravitas of film critics the world over. Shot in 2005 and finally released last year in the middle of a protracted, bitter legal battle between Lonergan and producer Scott Rudin, the vast majority of film critics panned the theatrical release of Margaret. Many were quick to cite plot threads that seemed to appear out of nowhere and then fizzle away, leading to a jarringly emotional, operatic conclusion that felt unwarranted by the events preceding it. Perhaps luckily, I never saw the original theatrical release, which Lonergan gave his blessing, in case anyone was wondering. As a three hour cut (recently released on DVD), the film is astounding. And a fair amount of those critics originally put off by the apparent stiltedness of the initial theatrical release have subsequently come around.
Margaret is mainly about Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), a generally vanilla 17-year-old girl living with her mother and much younger brother in a nice apartment in Manhattan. From the very first scene we’re to understand that Lonergan isn’t setting up his protagonist as a virtuous person: she’s been caught cheating on a math test, which could very well jeopardize her scholarship to a prestigious New York high school. Her reaction to her teacher’s (Matt Damon) discovery of her cheating is calculatedly nonchalant, an attitude which sort of serves as Chekov’s Gun for this film. Margaret’s ostensible climax takes place about ten minutes into its three-hour runtime, when a terribly gruesome bus accident provides the occasion for Lisa’s confrontation with iron-clad consequence vis-à-vis the death of an innocent woman transporting groceries across the street. This event informs virtually everything that happens throughout the remainder of the film, but mainly it serves as a way of providing a modicum of clarity for the things Lisa gets up to before the final act. In a sense, the awful reality of what she’s been a party to gives her life a fleeting sense of purpose, totally subtle and neary chimeric. And I can’t stress enough the extent to which Ms. Paquin totally crushes this role. It’s uncanny.
Mr. Lonergan’s skill as a dramaturgist is evident in both of his films, and his knack for naturalistic dialogue is bound up entirely with his understanding of radically personal reactions to grief and conflict. Experiencing Lonergan’s dialogue, I’m reminded of Faulkner’s much-quoted meditation on writing, “It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.” There’s an electrifying quality of almost mundane truth to the way Lonergan’s characters speak and behave, which perhaps played more towards the center of the stage in his sole other directing credit, You Can Count on Me. Here, however, the director’s formulation of Lisa’s character matches beautifully with Paquin’s embodiment of same.
Margaret closes against the backdrop of “Belle Nuit” from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, and what takes place during that overplayed piece of melodrama is something dreadfully serious and relieving all at once. It’s something that can only happen when a scene is given the requisite amount of time, and the scene in question only makes sense when reconciled with the scenes before it, which also take time to develop. Despite the Offenbach, the end of this film isn’t really a crescendo. But it isn’t a whisper, either. Lonergan has shown himself to be unnervingly comfortable with exploring the gaps between comfort and distress that so thoroughly permeate our lives and are so thoroughly difficult to adequately capture in art with any measure of grace. We need more like him.