Originally slated to bow theatrically in 2007, Kenneth Lonergan’s long awaited return to the big screen has been, well, just that; long awaited. Following a handful of lawsuits, a studio Hell bent on getting a 150-minute or less cut out of a film that director Lonergan had trimmed down to just a tad over three hours, and even the hiring of the team of Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoomaker to help edit down the film, Margaret hit theaters briefly in 2011, but is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. And in multiple cuts, as, what else should one truly expect from a film with this type of history?
Starring an absolutely killer (pardon the horrible and possibly avoidable pun) cast featuring Matt Damon, Anna Paquin, Mark Ruffalo, J. Smith-Camer, Jean Reno, Kieran Culkin and Allison Janney, Margaret follows the story of a young high school student who happens to be at the center of a horrible accident. After distracting a cowboy hat-wearing bus driver culminating him in running a red light only to kill an older woman crossing the road, our young lead sees her life flip upside down as the grief, guilt and ultimately anger over the continual employment of the driver involved, completely changes her, her relationships with those around her, and ultimately her outlook on the world she inhabits. An affecting 9/11 allegory that may be years from its intended release but still as haunting as ever, the world encompassing discussion at the core of this film is truly important, but this writer thinks that those looking solely for some September 11th philosophizing will be missing a large chunk of this heady and experimental muted epic.
‘It’s like their entire existence is to prove how loud they can be.’
Uttered roughly a quarter of the way into the film, this line proves to encompass, aesthetically and intellectually, exactly what makes Margaret a sloppy mess of a masterpiece. Anna Paquin stars as our lead, and gives easily 2011′s best performance, male or female. Lisa is a histrionic, beyond-her-years high school student, with a penchant for arguing politics in class, getting into intentional scuffles with her mother, and various other things, just for the sake of truly doing those things. Given an immense level of heart, truth and depth by Paquin, one is able to inherently relate to Lisa, as she is doing nothing else other than attempting to leave her mark on this world. Taking her life by the horns, Lisa relies on no one to work her way through this world, be it her bluntness about wanting to get laid for the first time or her focus on getting justice for the victim, her being at fault in the accident or not, precocious doesn’t begin to describe Paquin’s ferocity, as that adjective brings with it some sense of inherent cartoonishness, of which there is none here. Paquin’s performance is raw and full of truth, as any teen will tell you that while there may not be a more emotional a creature on this planet than a teen, there is also not a single more persistent and bluntly straightforward an entity either.
And then that supporting cast. Mark Ruffalo co-stars as the bus driver Maretti, and while his character is easy to dislike, his performance is hard to find fault in. Never seeming to judge the man he is portraying, his performance is top notch, put behind a character that is done away with within the body of the film far too easily. Only given one true sequence to flex his muscle, his character (again, not the rather engaging performance) is built come the film’s finale as nothing more than a whipping boy for the film’s attempt at meditating on bureaucracy and how stilted the legal system can be when dealing with groups, unionized labor specifically. Equally shafted is Matthew Broderick, who is given a pair of fantastic scenes, but is nothing more than that neurotic English teacher that everyone knew and loved to make fun of in high-school. I myself have not yet seen the full director’s cut, as the three hour-plus runtime is hard to fit into a daily work schedule, so it may change, but for the theatrical cut, these two turns are easily the film’s most undervalued. Toss in a revelatory performance from Matt Damon, a charming and rather intriguing performance from Jean Reno, and you have a supporting cast that is just impeccable.
But no one stands up to one J. Smith-Cameron’s performance as Joan, Lisa’s actress mother. The film shines as a look into the mother-daughter relationship at the film’s core, and Smith-Cameron’s performance has much to do with that. Brimming under the surface with a fiery love for her daughter that is rarely given back, Margaret‘s strongest scenes are those between the mother and daughter, particularly near the end of the film. The final sequence, set in an opera house, is one of the most moving and truly affecting pieces of cinema that has graced the big screen in years, and it’s all set up by what will go down as one of the past few years best familial relationships, blending not only into the film itself, but the themes that it attempts to discuss.
Aesthetically, Lonergan’s voice is one that needs to be heard from more than twice every ten years or so. Visually, the film looks and feels a tad aged, but it’s still as vital, as beautiful, and as experimental as it would have been a half decade ago. Featuring gorgeous New York photography and some of the most intriguing and bravura filmmaking choices seen in years, Lonergan’s film is a slightly bloated and self-indulgent experiment, but it’s one that will be remembered for years to come. Be it Lonergan’s ability to focus on facial responses, or his ability to enhance the film’s inherent melodrama to make it feel far more real than it truly is theatrical, Lonergan allows his characters the time, room and platform to muse on a range of important topics from the nature of violence to American foreign policy, all feeling as though it is leading up to a far more emotional and centered a point. These are human beings we are dealing with here. Beautiful, emotional, arrogant, histrionic creatures, but while that may account to melodramatic soapbox proselytizing, Lonergan posits that it’s just human nature. Be it Reno’s character’s belief that violence isn’t always wrong, not everyone is bad. No entire race of people, group of people under one religion or gender is more violent than another. There are extremists in every outlet. Some people, as a man once said, ‘just want to watch the world burn.’ And in the case of some others, like the emotionally destructive lead at the center of this film, they may seem like they are simply out to get a response, while truly having the greatest of intentions. It’s all human.
Again, this review is for the theatrical cut of Margaret, which is currently available on DVD, with an extended cut also readily available in a DVD/Blu-ray combo pack.