Saturday, August 25, 2012


Director:  Kenneth Lonergan
Anna Paquin, Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, Kieran Culkin, J. Smith-Cameron, Matthew Broderick, Allison Janey, Jeannie Berlin, Jean Reno, Kenneth Lonergan, Michael Ealy, John Gallagher Jr., Rosemarie DeWitt, Olivia Thirbly
Running Time: 150 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Filmed way back in 2005 and finally released late last year, Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret opens with one of the most emotionally intense death scenes I've seen in a movie. Three minutes seem to go on for an eternity. It's graphic, but that isn't why it's so difficult to get through. Wanting to look away but finding it impossible to do so, I hoped this isn't what really happens if someone's hit by a bus. I preferred thinking they couldn't be conscious long enough to carry on a conversation. That they just instantly black out and have no idea what's happened. That they can't possibly think there's a chance of making it. That their final minutes couldn't be in the hands of random strangers. As the scene wore on, I realized that this is probably exactly how it happens, and that's what made it so frightening. How could a sadistic scene like that be necessary? Lonergan spends the next two and half hours telling us. And this is the SHORTER, theatrical version.The longer director's cut runs three hours, and after seeing this, watching it seems almost mandatory.

The story of the making of Margaret is almost impossible to separate from the events that unfold onscreen, of which that opening bus accident and its aftermath serves as a catalyst for something greater. Sitting on the shelf for over six years entangled in a web of litigation, this little unknown film started popping up atop many "best of" lists last year with the word "masterpiece" floating around. While I'd like to say that word isn't used lightly, too often it is, but such a strong recommendation from so many credible sources was more than enough reason to check it out. And now that I have it's easy to understand the raves. It crawls under your skin in a way few movies today do, tackling issues even fewer successfully could. If it's a masterpiece, it's a messy one, and that feels entirely appropriate considering its depth and scope more closely resembles a great, lost American novel than any recently released dramatic film.

The protagonist's name isn't Margaret, but Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), a 17 year-old Manhattan high school student who witnesses that aforementioned bus accident that kills pedestrian Monica Patterson (Allison Janey), and comforts her in her final moments. But she also shares responsibility for causing it along with the driver Jason Berstone (Mark Ruffalo). She lies to the cops about what happened, both out of fear and guilt, before attempting to change her story. This leads to her becoming involved in a wrongful death lawsuit against the MTA, alongside the victim's best friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin).  Almost too intelligent for her own good, Lisa's already overdramatic streak is taken to to new heights as she attempts to cope with her role in what happened. The brunt of her lashing out is directed at her Broadway actress mom Joan (J. Cameron Smith), and as their vicious verbal exchanges prove, she's definitely her mother's daughter.Various sexual encounters and heated debates with classmates over terrorism become her outlet for frustration and expression, as she's plunged into a very real adult situation no girl her age could possibly be prepared for, even as all the real adults in her life constantly fail her. 

Lonergan (whose last film was 2000's You Can Count on Me) jams so much story in without it ever feeling that way, and in doing so really nails the experience of what it's like to be a hyper-sensitive, intellectual teen who thinks they've been through it all when they haven't even begun. Its title derives from Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem, "Spring and Fall," which is read during the film by Matthew Broderick, who plays Lisa's high school English teacher. The poem is about an adolescent girl named Margaret and how coming face-to-face with mortality changes her, but what unfolds over the course of this film is about that and a lot more, cutting to the core of our failure to meaningfully connect with others. That it's such a tough movie to describe and pin down is a testament to all the unconventional routes Lonergan takes to reach its goal.

Multiple storylines and sub-plots are juggled effortlessly, with everything always returning to Lisa and the accident's aftermath for all those involved, directly or not. But for Lisa, everything is always about her, and it's a credit to the writing and Paquin that we don't judge her for it and at times even empathize with her self-centeredness. She's in over her head and the more she does to make make things better, the deeper the hole she digs. Whether it's calling a bad boy classmate (Kieran Culkin) over to lose to her virginity, stringing along her would-be boyfriend (John Gallagher Jr.), hitting on her geometry teacher (Matt Damon), or meddling in the bus driver and victim's lives to absolve her conscience, Paquin makes it all seem somehow refreshingly human and relatable. She's not altogether a detestable character so much as a confused one, making it excusable for us to go from hating to loving Lisa (or vice versa) within the confines of a single scene.

No stranger to playing intellectually advanced and sexually curious New York high school students in the 25th Hour and The Squid and the Whale, this role feels like Paquin's ultimate payoff on those two characters had they been given their own showcases. What she did then and achieves again as Lisa is nail down a certain cadence and inflection of speech that you'd only find amongst the intellectual community in Manhattan. Words are a a weapon and the arts their primary means of expression (the film contains at least three scenes with either plays or operas). Had the movie been released when scheduled and with the proper marketing push back in '06 or '07, there's a decent chance Paquin could have won her second Oscar.

J. Cameron Smith is equally powerful and convincing as Lisa's mother, struggling with instability issues of her own and making it easy to see how the two can barely get through a conversation without it ending in a screaming match. Her own romance with sophisticated European, and borderline anti-Semite, Ramon (a superb Jean Reno) seems self-sabotaged from the get-go. The mother-daughter dynamic is just one example of Lonergan's pitch perfect writing, as the two central characters emotionally wound one another in ways each is too selfish to see. Lisa's relationship with her absent father,--played really well by Lonergan and seen only during long-distance phone calls-- is the worst kind of estranged parent. The type who continuously makes promises he has no intention of keeping. It's painful to watch and realize what Lisa doesn't: She's low on his list of priorities.

In pretty much only a single scene, Mark Ruffalo is frightening as the bus driver who encounters Lisa. You want to despise this man, until the actor playing him makes you realize that his biggest crimes (besides accidentally killing a woman) just might be desperation and stupidity. In an unforgettable supporting turn,  Jeannie Berlin comes out of semi-retirement to conquer the complex role of the Monica's tough best friend Emily and executor of her estate, sent into a tailspin when this teen shows up at her door pushing for a wrongful death suit and talking like she knew the victim. Berlin and Paquin have a scene together late in the film that's just brutal in its raw honesty, forcing the viewer to pick a side in the most awkward of situations where both are right. Or maybe wrong. But aside from philosophy, the film navigates tricky legal scenes with astonishing clarity so even someone completely unfamiliar with law could easily comprehend the complicated details of the case. Michael Ealy helps a great deal in that regard with his laid back performance as the lawyer who realizes he too might be in over his head, but offers up reasonable solutions nonetheless. 

Without even knowing beforehand, you'd still be able to tell just watching it that the film's been sitting on the shelf for six years. It really looks and feels like 2005, giving the entire picture the aura of a post 9/11 period piece, despite now arriving over 10 years after the tragedy. The wounds are fresher on screen, especially in the tumultuous, realistically written classroom scenes. Stranger still is seeing New Yorkers walk the streets without texting, a pre-True Blood, 23 year-old Paquin passing as a high school student and a much younger looking Matt Damon before he turned the corner as a major acting force. The germ of that transformation is evident, even if his storyline seems like the biggest casualty of the editing war that delayed the film. You can sense that certain scenes are cut-off or feel incomplete with a few jarring transitions, yet miraculously none of that hurts the narrative or lessen the story's overall impact. In many ways, it seems to strengthen it. There are also a few "blink and you'll miss them" cameos from actors who would go on to become bigger names, like Olivia Thirlby and Krysten Ritter. In fact, you could argue that most of the cast is more well known and successful now than when this started filming.

There's a line in the film where a character states that you're more likely to respond favorably to something you've already heard is good. That idea especially applies to the experience of watching this, and because of that, it'll likely take some time to fully estimate its value. For some reason critics also tend to respond more favorably to New York-set movies, possibly because they so often resemble the characters that populate those types of films. This time though, they're right. There's nothing quite like watching intellectuals tear each other apart so we have something to think and talk about for days and weeks after the credits roll.

As discouraging as the film's anonymity is, we should thank our lucky stars that an intelligent, gripping human drama about real people struggling with real problems came out at all, much less this well considering all its post-production nightmares. And thankfully now with more outlets to see lesser known independent titles than there were five or six years ago, it can possibly find an audience. When writing, directing and acting all come together in a way that has something important to say about life, that combination usually proves to be an unstoppable force. At two and a half hours, Margaret still feels like it has a lot more left to say, even if what's there is more than enough.   

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