Kenneth Lonergan shot his sophomore feature, Margaret, in 2005. It was given a limited release in 2011. Somewhere in between those years Lonergan was sued by his investors for not being able to finish the film in a timely fashion. He was removed from the project, ran out of money, and the film was thought to have been officially killed.
Then Martin Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker came into possession of the film, and they made their own cut. Scorsese, who was an executive producer for Lonergan’s previous film, 2000’s You Can Count on Me, made the edits as close as he could to the source material, which was a huge, sprawling script that was meant to be more of a tapestry than a story. When watching the film, it’s hard to imagine trying edit what must have been mountains of footage.
The movie is long. Make no mistake about that. It is an epic drama, not unlike Magnolia, and Lonergan embraces the over-the-top theatrics often reserved for operas. In fact, the film’s approach altogether is operatic, from the sustained prologue and broad characterizations to the increasing tensions between the cast members and their rising volume. The stakes are both high and mundane, dealing with life, death, chaos, fear, and destruction while also dealing with the small matters of everyday life. They are normal people under extraordinary circumstances, and none of them know how to act. And this is the theme of the movie: How are we supposed to act when things turn out wrong?
The film follows Lisa (played by Anna Paquin), a self-obsessed teenage girl who comes from a privileged childhood and attends an expensive New York City private school.
Her mother (J. Cameron:-Smith) is a famous broadway actor who is starring in a hit comedy and dating a French-Colombian retiree played by Jean Reno. Lisa is disconnected from her mother, not only because her mother is never home, but because Lisa herself is too narcissistic to realize when her mother is trying to reach out.
Lonergan has crafted his entire story around Lisa, who is an utterly unlikable human being. At first, it seems like the film’s arc is focused on Lisa turning into a responsible, compassionate woman, but it’s only a trick. We are never meant to like her. She’s loud, opinionated, rude, and naive. And, near the beginning of the film, Lisa distracts a NYC bus driver enough for him to accidentally run over and kill a woman.
Lisa is sent into a downward spiral following the woman’s gruesome death. Guilt overcomes her, and she can’t come to grips with the reality that some tragedies are senseless. She spends the film trying to find meaning in what she has witnessed, but it is a fruitless action. Her journey takes her through police corruption, immoral bureaucracy, and other uncomfortable territory.
Lonergan explores murky territory through Lisa, and the further into the mess that she gets, the more we realize how vacant she is. How vacant her life is. She is turning a real tragedy into a way for her to express herself. She uses the senseless, horrifying public death of a woman to orchestrate her own opera, and she acts accordingly. When she cries, she totally breaks down. When she’s angry, she screams and becomes violent. When she is happy, she cannot contain herself. She is performing, like her mother, but in a play of her own creation. She is using a tragedy as her stage. And this is a brilliant metaphor for post-9/11 America.
As a loud, emotional, self-obsessed teenager full of naive ambition to change the world, Lisa is the perfect model for our country’s reaction to the attack on New York. She is incredulous by the loss of this woman. She doesn’t understand how this could have happened, and she feels partly responsible. Sure, she distracted the driver of the bus, but it was ultimately his fault, right? He was the one driving.
Margaret isn’t exactly a lot of fun to watch. It is a circus mirror that reflects a bloated, ugly image of its audience. We are constantly reminded of the naivete of youth, and the angry, cavalier attitude of a person who is attacked by a force that he or she cannot, or will not, understand. And even though the movie isn’t much fun, it is extremely fascinating and exhilarating to watch.
Paquin’s performance is spectacular. We hate her, but we also, strangely, want her to succeed. We sympathize with her because we can sometimes see through her performance. However, the breakthrough of the film, for me, was J. Cameron:-Smith as Lisa’s mother. She is also the source of Lonergan’s most breathtaking technique used in the film, as we see the same scene of her play again and again as her life grows out of control.
The film is a sprawling epic not only about life in America, but about America itself as it currently exists. And even though the movie is long, meandering, grating, and mean, it is also surprisingly poignant and emotional. It’s very close to being a masterpiece, and for that, you should give it a try.
I give Margaret 8.5/10 breathlessly emotional teenagers