There might not be a sadder cinematic story than that of Margaret. I’m not specifically referring to the film’s contents, though it is indeed sad, and haunting, and beautiful, and brilliant (we’ll get to that later). Rather, I’m referring specifically to the torturous trip writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s follow-up to You Can Count on Me took from the editing room to the screen. Shot in 2005, Lonergan went against distributor Fox Searchlight’s wishes and produced a fairly lengthy motion picture (the rumour goes it came in at just under four hours). Its 2007 release date was pushed back, and after five years, multiple lawsuits, and marathon editing sessions – aided by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker – all the parties finally approved the 150-minute cut we see today. The resulting product is stirring and impossible to scrape from one’s mind, but there’s a tragedy in knowing that a “complete” version is being hidden from our eyes, obscured by red tape and resentment between filmmaker and studio. Chunks of this story are missing, and it’s easy to see where the scissors have been put to work. Thank goodness, then, that this tale of guilty parties shifting blame back-and-forth, each with their own distorted memories and recollections of events, should benefit from the behind-the-scenes bitterness and deleted sequences.
Anna Paquin, giving a performance even Meryl Streep thought deserved the Oscar, stars as opinionated 17-year-old high schooler Lisa Cohen (that Paquin, as of this writing, is 29, only proves that this movie has been sitting on the shelf for some time). She lives in Manhattan with her long-suffering stage actress mother (J. Smith Cameron), who has finally found a role that audiences are responding to. While her mum entertains the advances of a fan (Jean Reno), Lisa passes the time by exasperating all around her. The prickly teen, with something to say about everything, instigates classroom debates to the chagrin of her teachers (Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick); she backtalks her mum, then gets defensive when chastised; she toys with the feelings of a young boy after her affections. And she does it all with a smile.
But this is no Gossip Girl knock-off. The opening credits – in which New Yorkers stroll around town in super-slow-motion – sets the elegiac tone perfectly. While on the hunt for a striking cowboy hat (don’t ask), Lisa spots a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) wearing exactly the kind she’s after. She runs down the street, waving to get his attention, and he flirts back, not realising he’s about to hit an innocent woman (Allison Janney) crossing the street. The victim – bloodied, delirious, slowing losing her sight, and scared out of her mind – dies in Lisa’s arms; it’s one of the most distressing sequences I’ve ever witnessed on screen. When interviewed by police, Lisa lies and says the driver did not run a red light. Days later, when the gravity of the situation sets in, she realises that justice must be done, and someone has to pay. Not her though. Her only crime was lying to the police, not distracting the driver. She’ll sort out her story, confront the driver, appeal to Emily (Jeannie Berlin), the best friend of the deceased woman, retain an attorney, and right all the wrongs. Not that she’s done anything wrong. No, no. And just in case any feelings of remorse should arise, she’ll just block it out with sex, drugs, experimentation, and by inciting more debates in the class room.
One of the debates engaged in by Lisa involves the culpability of America in the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers. Though this is the only instance where the tragedy is addressed, the shadow of 9/11 casts a pall over the entire production. As Lisa’s peer implies, the United States, though not behind the terrible actions, needs to claim some responsibility for inciting al-Qaida against them. Lisa finds the concept ridiculous. Of course she does. Here she is going out of her way to feign outrage and righteousness, begging for the bus driver to lose his job, befriending Emily and acting as surrogate daughter of the dear departed, just to blot out her own deafening, shrieking conscience. Opinionated, but not always informed; young, but eager to lead; confused, but still the loudest party of any argument. Sounds like Lonergan’s created Lisa to act not only as a representation of a teenager coming-of-age, but of America and its state of perpetual adolescence. When the innocent civilian dies in the street, a bunch of passers-by stop to give aid, and share in the grieving. Not long after, no one is around to offer Lisa any support. Again, echoes of a nation banding together after a tragedy, and then tearing apart.
It should be noted here that Paquin’s turn as Lisa is definitely grating, but that’s intentional. She is astounding, and her inevitable climactic outburst is mesmerising. As her confusion and guilt builds over the course of the picture, the pace picks up and the editing takes on an irregular new form. A major – major – subplot involving her relationship with one teacher (Damon, who is excellent and still babyfaced in 2006) is brushed over, while her early loss-of-virginity to drug dealer Paul (Kieran Culkin) is awkwardly and endlessly pored over. Though the cuts to the ‘teacher’ storyline were no doubt made to save time, they work in the context of the film. Lisa’s choices begin as innocent teen abandon; then, as she struggles to find peace within her existence, her decision-making becomes more desperate, random, disastrous. The elliptical editing leaves us searching for meaning just like her.
The finale features an operatic, melodramatic vibe that elsewhere – or, in a shorter cut of this movie – would unlikely be earned. Playwright Lonergan may have had his screenplay torn to shreds by the editing process, but he proves himself as a true filmmaker in his ability to have his individual scenes come together and form a cohesive, cinematic whole that still builds to a transcendent finale. Margaret is a mess, and so is its subject. The performance of the entire cast – who I’ve barely even credited; they’re all sublime – has been salvaged, and the grand metaphors are still conveyed with perfect clarity. Maybe we don’t need to see the “complete” cut of Margaret; as far as I’m concerned, emotionally, intelligently, and viscerally, this is complete.
The title comes from the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, entitled “Spring and Fall: to a Young Child.” It’s about growing up, and the tragic knowledge that the falling of the leaves each year never gets any easier. The subject, Margaret, is informed that any grief she feels is in fact the manifested fear of her own mortality: “It is the blight man was born for, It is Margaret you mourn for.”
Margaret exclusively screens at the Cinema Nova in Melbourne from June 14, and from Cinema Paradiso in Perth from June 21, 2012.