“A fiasco with a stunning first half” is what I called Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret when it was dumped in one New York theater last fall, five years after shooting, amid a raging legal battle between Lonergan and a producer. The editing room fights were palpable in the finished film. In the second half, key dramatic beats were missing, turning some scenes into head-scratchers. Shots of the city — including a circular pan at the edge of Central Park — called so much attention to themselves that they reminded me of Bela Lugosi’s effusions in Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda?: “People … all going somewhere. All with their own thoughts, their own ideas. All with their own personalities … Pull the strings! Dance to that, which one is created for … ” The lighting was harsh, the camera placement weird, sometimes behind the heroine’s head. A climactic emotional outpouring at the opera struck me as ludicrous. Despite being a huge fan of Lonergan’s plays This Is Our Youth* and Lobby Hero and his debut film, You Can Count on Me (in Slate I wrote that Lonnergan has “emerged as the most potent dramatic voice of his generation — the real deal”), I didn’t go to bat for Margaret.
I should have looked more deeply.
A few critics saw past the problems. (Time’s Mary Pols extolled the movie especially well.) Other fans formed “Team Margaret,” a Twitter feed. The groundswell was small but significant enough to enable Lonergan to make a three-hour-and-six-minute cut that’s now out on DVD, and that I saw on the big screen Monday. Before it started, a rumpled Lonergan thanked the critics who supported him (first expressing amazement that he would ever thank a critic), then added that the others can “go fuck themselves.” In lieu of self-fucking, I stayed to watch the film, which in its extended form and only its extended form is as close to a masterpiece as any American movie in a decade.
The protagonist is an Upper West Side Manhattan teenager named not Margaret but Lisa, played fearlessly, brilliantly by Anna Paquin. In the first scene, she admits to cheating on a test to a too indulgent private school teacher (Matt Damon). She’s a blasé relativist: In her universe, there’s no right or wrong. Then comes the turning point. She distracts a bus driver whose cowboy hat she likes, he runs a red light, and a woman is hit — a wildly shocking accident that ends with Lisa, drenched in blood, holding and consoling the dying woman. (As played by Allison Janney, she’s discombobulated, terrified, enraged.) I’ve never seen anything like that scene and, on one level, hope never to again.
Its impact lingers though in the scenes that follow, although Lisa barely talks about it — a source of extreme discomfort for the shattered viewer but essential to the movie’s power. She goes to a party. She calls an ironic hipster (Kieran Culkin) and asks him to take her virginity, blowing off a close friend, Darren (John Gallagher Jr.), who adores her. She won’t discuss what happened with her single mother, Joan, an actress played by Lonergan’s wife, J. Smith-Cameron, who’s about to open in an Off Broadway play. She spews venom at her mother for not understanding what she, Lisa, can’t express. Her father in L.A., played by Lonergan, asks rote questions about her love life. He’s kind but pro forma, and utterly useless.
Lonergan knows that teenagers like Lisa see and, more important, feel on a different level. Suddenly, after more than an hour, she calls the dead woman’s only living relative — her decision made offscreen, the camera on her little brother watching TV. That’s a big moment to leave out, yet I think it’s a smart choice, forcing the viewer to look for signs of her latent transformation in the scenes that preceded it. (The alternative would be a predictable — and probably phony — epiphany.) What haunts Lisa as much as the accident itself is her split-second decision to protect the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) and tell the police that the light was green. The sequence in which she travels to the distant reaches of Brooklyn (Bay Ridge) to talk to the driver is startling in its bluntness. She’s in an alien world with a different class of people, and the driver’s hostility is raw. He refuses to let her use the bathroom until his wife (Rosemary DeWitt) intervenes. Once Lisa is on the toilet, Lonergan lets us hear the plop of her bowels. She’s so scared that her body is rebelling.
In the second half, Paquin’s Lisa makes desperate attempts to communicate the intensity of her feelings — to the point where other characters accuse her of overdramatizing, of seeing herself as a character in an opera. But that’s what teenagers do, says Lonergan. When she reaches out to Emily (Jeannie Berlin), a close friend of the woman killed, the older woman’s cynicism butts up against the teenager’s passionate conviction in a way that breaks your heart. The film hits an emotional peak with Lisa’s driving, tearful plea for Emily to forgive her that self-dramatization, which comes from authentic emotions that she doesn’t know how to express.
What an ear Lonergan has. The father, an out-of-work commercial director, isn’t caricatured — he just can’t rise to the occasion. Scenes with apathetic, condescending policemen and bottom-line lawyers are perfectly shaped; for them, it’s business as usual. Lonergan’s larger theme is how hard it is for people to connect, to see the world through one another’s eyes. It’s an overarching disjointedness I’ve often perceived — after smoking dope. But Lonergan portrays it lucidly, as part of both the human comedy and the human tragedy. A few good exchanges have been added to the subplot in which Lisa’s mother is avidly courted by a Colombian businessman (Jean Reno) with whom she has nothing in common. When she says as much, he’s bewildered and shakes her off. His job? Developing software to help South American computers (with different systems) communicate with the rest of the world. What seemed like an excrescence in Margaret’s shorter form is now a classic “B” plot that reinforces Lonergan’s sardonic view of infatuation.
Margaret is named for a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, “Spring and Fall, to a Young Child,” centering on a girl who perceives the idea of death through the falling of leaves. Lonergan gives you that perspective, Lisa’s, but his canvas is wider. Classroom scenes in which Lisa gets into a shouting match with a girl who defends the motives of al-Qaeda force you into a different arena, where Lisa’s bubble of privilege is inviolable. Lonergan mixes into his soundtrack snatches of other New Yorkers’ conversations (far more pronounced in the extended cut). He lingers on high rises, passersby, planes overhead that evoke the trauma of 9/11. I still think these shots are clunky (“People … all going somewhere … ”), but they have a cumulative impact. Margaret needs to sprawl. It’s counterintuitive, but a longer movie can feel much shorter if its scenes flow together, if its dramatic trajectory is maintained. When you see the longer cut, you’ll wonder how Lonergan could ever have left out the abortion scene that lays the groundwork for Lisa’s volatile last act. It’s just crazy that some higher-up thought a shorter movie would play better with audiences despite its senselessness.
Everything in Margaret has its place now, including Lonergan’s double-edged view of the theater. Joan’s play is called Controversy, an amusing dig at one-word-titled problem dramas like Doubt and Art. (The show’s opening gives Lonergan a chance to show how needy actors are when it comes to reviews — and to parody an adjective-laden rave.) But theater also builds bridges. At a school-play rehearsal, the exasperated director orders the cast and crew onstage to do a sort of intimacy exercise — which seems laughable until Lisa opens up and weeps to the jilted Darren, whom she misses fiercely. It’s art that brings people in their separate spheres together — especially opera, which plays a larger role in the extended cut. Snatches of arias (Mozart, Wagner, Straus) run all through, preparing you for the finale in which a devastated Lisa, for whom everything has turned out badly, can finally surrender to her grief in the presence of her mother. Live opera offers what the real world can’t — the possibility of transcendence.
In Margaret, Lonergan uses cinema to direct the viewer the way he can’t onstage, but at heart he’s still a dramatist with no obligation to reconcile disparate points of view, only to lay them out, side by side, underlining echoes and cross-currents. In a literature class, a teacher (Matthew Broderick) reads the lines from King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we t’ the gods, / They kill us for their sport.”* Lonergan makes sure we understand that it’s Gloucester — his eyes recently gouged out — uttering this bitter line, not Shakespeare (whose own views are harder to discern). Similarly, Lonergan doesn’t speak through Lisa. For all we know, he thinks her quest to bring the bus driver to justice — as part of an attempt to expiate her own sin — is a folly. (I did, at times.) He gives the other characters a chance to voice their perspectives, even — in a hilarious bit that’s funnier the longer it goes — a kid whose interpretation of the “flies to wonton gods” line is wacko meta and flummoxes Broderick’s teacher. No matter how convinced you are you see the truth, someone else sees it differently.
Through all the digressions and longeurs, Margaret charts the torturous emotional journey of a modern American girl as no one has onscreen before, and it should be seen on a canvas befitting it — on a big screen in a theater. Please, Fox Searchlight, consider a limited national release.
In the event that doesn’t happen, you should buy the movie, a two-disc set containing the Blu-ray of the theatrical cut and the DVD of the extended version, and throw the Blu-ray away. I’m serious. It’s a shambles unworthy of its director and cast. It does, however, contain enough astonishing moments to make me regret having given it short shrift. My thanks to those who didn’t and who paved the way for this momentous event in American cinema.
UPDATE: The comments have been particularly helpful here and I’m appreciative — as well as humiliated that, in my breathless enthusiasm to get it all down, I quoted Shakespeare’s Gloucester referring to “wonton gods” instead “wanton boys.” The asterisk denoting a correction that hovers above the quote will haunt me tomorrow and tomorrow and tamale. Another question raised is whether this is a “director’s” or “extended” cut, the idea being that Lonergan signed off on both. It is, officially, an “extended” cut. But my impression, bolstered by Lonergan’s introduction at Manhattan’s Landmark Sunshine Theater, is that he went with the “theatrical cut” for contractual reasons but welcomed the opportunity to add some scenes, remove others, and remix the soundtrack. (He was particularly effusive in his praise for the new mixer.) There’s also the matter of Lisa’s excretions in the bus driver’s Bay Ridge home. Not to put too fine a point on it, but her toilet scene might indeed show an inability to pee rather than a compulsion to poop. I would have to watch the scene again several times to be sure and would end up feeling like a pervert. In any case, as another Shakespeare character would put it, this is a difference in kin but not in kind. Either way, her body is in an uproar. Finally, I have been fascinated to read elsewhere online of my 180-degree reversal on Margaret. That’s not how I’d put it — and not how I did put it. Watching Lonergan’s extended cut certainly made me see more vividly the inadequacy of my original review (which was truncated to fit in the print version of New York), but the film itself had been significantly altered. So I like to think I only shifted 90 degrees. Or 100. Or 120, and that’s my final admission.
* The name of the play has been corrected from This Was Our Youth.
* The King Lear quote has been fixed, changed to “wanton boys” from “wonton gods.” We regret the Chinese food-related error.