Saturday Editor’s Pick: Margaret (2011)

by on February 19, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat Feb 25 at 7:15* at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]


You’ve probably heard of the behind-the-scenes melodrama behind Kenneth Lonergan’s six-years-in-the-making feature, a major mea culpa to some, a major masterpiece to others. The Los Angeles Times report has the most thorough rundown of the various edits (involving the capable hands of Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker!) and legal battles.
After Longergan trimmed his opus to one minute below the required 150 minutes, Fox Searchlight effectively dumped the picture (ie, one week in the middle of the New York Film Festival) in a few major cities, prompting Jaime Christley to start a petition demanding that the film be made available to critics before end of year awards were bestowed.
It worked, but as the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, one of the film’s (and the petition’s) major champions conceded, “even if Margaret doesn’t win any awards, it will be remembered, years and decades hence, as one of the year’s, even the decade’s, cinematic wonders, and will leave historians to ponder and rue its lack of recognition in its own day.”


Film Comment Selects” hosts Lonergan and a few yet-to-be-announced cast members to reflect on their ambitious film maudit.
In Brody’s capsule review:

It rises to a high and grand symbolic pitch. For all its awkwardness and uncertainty, the film is a city symphony, romantic yet scathing, lyrical with street life and vaulting skylines, reckless with first adventure, and awed by the abstractions, both intellectual and poetic, on which the great machine runs.



Keith Uhlich declares “What a glorious mess!” for Time Out New York:

Lonergan’s long-delayed follow-up to 2000’s revered brother-sister drama You Can Count On Me finally arrives in theaters with little fanfare and the bitter air of failure around it. Don’t believe the scuttlebutt: The writer-director’s sprawling look at the effect a gruesome accident has on Manhattan teen Lisa Cohen (Paquin) bursts with ambition and specificity in its novelistic, social-drama narrative. Our attention is grabbed right from the gorgeous slo-mo credits sequence of numerous Gothamites going about their day—not obliviously, but more in a state of expectantly suspended animation. There’s palpable unease in the air (very potently post-9/11), and even as Lonergan sets the stage in a few mundane subsequent scenes—Lisa discussing grades with an instructor (Damon) and flirting bashfully with a classmate—this strange sense of tension never dissipates.
Then the accident occurs—a woman, played with one-scene wonder by Allison Janney, gets hit by a bus—and Lisa’s life, as well as the movie containing her, goes disturbingly, brilliantly off the rails. The next two hours are the sort of no-holds-barred psychodrama that John Cassavetes specialized in: Lisa pinballs between raw emotional states while a number of vivid supporting characters, from Damon’s pushover schoolteacher to a brash Upper West Sider superbly played by Elaine May’s daughter Jeannie Berlin, circle her like moths to a frenzied flame. Paquin deserves the highest accolades for her ferociously committed performance, turning what could have been a privileged prep-school archetype into a scorching depiction of adolescent grief. And though not all of Lonergan’s conceits work on a scene-by-scene basis (an upper-crust womanizer played by Jean Reno skews a bit too close to caricature), the film has a cumulative power—solidified by a devastating opera-house finale—that’s staggering. This is frayed-edges filmmaking at its finest



Nigel Andrews for the Financial Times:

What a mesmerising movie this is. If Lonergan couldn’t cut it down, that is because it deserves four hours and will one day get it.
All human life is here – for once the Hollywood-origin chestnut comes hot from the fire – and because Lonergan’s scalding, flavoursome script is directed by a man, Lonergan himself, who knows all its hot spots. The cast too is superb. No group of actors in a film ever had so little time to establish so much complexity or succeeded with such consummate skill.

Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian:

Perhaps Lonergan is content with the cut and perhaps not, but the resulting movie is stunning: provocative and brilliant, a sprawling neurotic nightmare of urban catastrophe, with something of John Cassavetes and Tom Wolfe, and rocket-fuelled by a superbly thin-skinned performance by Anna Paquin. Its sheer energy and dramatic vehemence, alongside that raw lead performance, puts it way ahead of more tastefully formed dramas.

Lisa is overwhelmed with ambiguous emotion at having contributed to a disaster and then participated in a coverup, and, compulsively driven to do something, draws everyone into a whirlpool of painful and destructive confrontations. But is that emotion guilt or righteousness? Or a sociopathic convulsion, a need to create a huge redemptive drama with herself at the centre, to lash out against her mother and the entire adult world; or to enact vengeance against a man who, without trying, has placed her in a position of weakness – at the very point at which she considers she should be attaining her adult, queen-bee status? Paquin creates that rarest of things: a profoundly unsympathetic character who is mysteriously, mesmerically, operatically compelling to watch.


Brody elaborates on his blog The Front Row:

Though most of the action takes place in closed or tight spaces and on an intimate scale, Lonergan is aiming at—and achieves—a rhapsodically panoramic view of life in New York. He doesn’t aim at a comprehensive view or a representative cross-section of the city’s neighborhoods, populations, or mores; he anchors the film on the Upper West Side (the physical and geographical particulars of which come touchingly—and, as far as I can tell, accurately—into play) and draws on a specific little niche of city life, the upper-middle-class milieu, significantly but far from solely Jewish, that’s defined by the liberal professions (law, medicine) and cultural sophistication with a traditional bent (Lincoln Center). In short, he takes on a stereotype—and he extracts the substance from it, showing what’s progressive about the professions, what’s emotionally redemptive about the classical arts, how a liberal upbringing inspires young people to pursue adventure (whether private or public, erotic or political) and gives them the spectrum of thought and openness of response to help them through its dangers.
It’s a movie of a vast ambition; it’s also an impulsive, imperfect film. But its core is so sure, its efforts so daring, and its heights so sublime as to render its flaws (and they’re easy enough to enumerate; I run through them in the capsule) insignificant. One of the virtues I didn’t mention there is Lonergan’s attention to the city’s physical allure: the bricks of the older apartment buildings where much of the action takes place; the nocturnal ballet of Broadway’s traffic lights, headlights, and taillights; the domineering yet vertiginous perch of offices in skyscrapers; the endless awe of the skyline; and even the post-9/11 shock of seeing an airplane flying low behind it.


Lonergan talks to Mary Pols (a self-declared member of “Team Margaret”) about the released cut, for TIME:

“I support this Cut wholeheartedly and want people to see and like it, because the actors deserve to be seen and appreciated for their amazing work,” he wrote in his statement. “But while I fully support the released Cut, it’s also no secret that I tried to get a subsequent version released, which Marty Scorsese very graciously helped with, which even more fully executes my complete intentions — a cut that I still hope will someday, somehow see the light of day.”
He goes on to say that he can’t really talk at all about why the cut wasn’t released, because of the pending lawsuit, but that he hopes Fox Searchlight will consider a relaunch. Rather wonderfully, he doesn’t pretend the film is perfect.
“Film-making like any other art can a profound means of human communication; beyond the professional pleasure of succeeding or the pain of failing, you do want your film to be seen — to communicate itself to other people,” he wrote to me. “They don’t have to like it, but connecting your inner life, your view of life, to the inner life and views of others is really and truly what it’s all about; and I desperately want Margaret to have that chance to reach people, regardless of its ultimate merits.


Tim Robey‘s review in the Telegraph prompted the re-release of the film:

In such situations – the many vexed movies of Warren Beatty spring to mind – it’s hard not to imagine that there isn’t something deeply wrong at the heart of a project, or at least in its resulting shape. So what’s particularly astonishing about Margaret is that it feels so burningly right. It’s rare, unstable, and kind of a masterpiece.
Lonergan makes it almost impossible to take sides, or not simply, within single scenes. He deals overtly with the fractious problems of discourse in the years immediately after 9/11 – bitter arguments between the half-Jewish Lisa and a Muslim classmate mesh themes of guilt and recrimination, which then bleed back out into every other facet of her life.
The sum of this has riveting intellectual heft. The acting is uniformly wonderful. It’s a phoenix of a film, risen from the ashes of what looked alarmingly like failure, and it needs to be seen.



Matt Singer for IFC:

Despite the film’s inordinately tortured history — six years and three lawsuits in the making — no documentary about its creation could compare with the drama of the film itself. Fingerprints of editorial distress are clearly evident in the film itself, which is a 150 minute long swirl of characters and themes and ideas that don’t always fit together neatly. In some ways, though, the film works better that way. If nothing else, “Margaret” teaches us that life does not fit together neatly. Why should the movie itself do otherwise?
What is “Margaret” about? God, what isn’t it about.It’s a shame that the biggest hang-up between Lonergan and his financiers was the film’s length: “Margaret” blows through two and a half hours and still feels too short. Like a teenager growing into their adult identity, it’s constantly discovering new facets of itself before our eyes.
The accident and it’s brutal aftermath, in which the injured woman slowly dies in Lisa’s arms, is easily one of the best and most harrowing scenes in any movie this year.


Glenn Kenny for Some Came Running:

On the most simplistic level, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret is like Randy Newman’s great, disturbing song “I Want You To Hurt Like I Do” writ large. One might call this a loose, baggy monster of a film.
In terms of ambition, and, yes, actual scope—the last thing this is is a 90-minute movie stretched out to some arbitrary epic—this is a huge leap for Lonergan, a playwright whose film debut was the similarly thoughtful but somewhat “smaller” 2000 You Can Count On Me. It’s kind of comparable to the jump writer/director Jeff Nichols made from Shotgun Stories to Take Shelter, I suppose, but what came to my mind was the notion that Eric Rohmer had followed My Night At Maud’s with something of mid-period Rivette duration, or maybe his own gloss on something along the lines of Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore. That sounds a little out there, I know, but it might make sense to you if you see the film, which, as Joe Pesci said in Raging Bull, you definitely should do. And yes, I very much hope that Lonergan gets to make more films. Long ones, too.



Ben Sachs for the Chicago Reader:

Like Funny People, Margaret questions the conventional wisdom that trauma forces bad characters to better themselves. But there’s another, more troubling aspect to it—call it the film’s cosmic perspective. Lonergan intercuts Lisa’s story—and often without warning—with that of her mother, Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), a successful stage actress who’s getting back into the dating scene. He also devotes several minutes to scenes that most filmmakers would sum up in a few shots: a political argument in Lisa’s prep school history class, a phone conversation with the dead woman’s cousin. This creates the uncanny feeling that the movie could shift focus at any time and be about one of the minor characters. As Lisa’s search for enlightenment fails to bring order to her life, Lonergan accumulates scenes but never validates them with a reassuring narrative pattern. This is deeply atheistic filmmaking, much in the way that Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice is deeply spiritual filmmaking, and I think most viewers would rather call it a mess than contend with the implication that life itself lacks a comforting, organizing structure.
I doubt that Lonergan’s preferred cut of Margaret (which is reported to run more than three hours) is any less disorganized than the two-and-a-half-hour version I saw. But it probably lacks the awkward cutting that presently mars quite a few of the dialogue scenes. In an apparent effort to bring the film to its contractually obligated running time, the editors (who they were, after five years of postproduction, I can only guess) snipped at the lengthy conversations, often covering up the patches with exterior shots of Manhattan. Some people find these moments distracting. I happen to like them—they reminded me of Yasujiro Ozu’s beloved “pillow shots” or the transitional moments of Frederick Wiseman’s great documentaries. Like both of those examples, Margaret’s exteriors take the viewer out of the human narrative to consider the world surrounding it. Yet where Ozu and Wiseman use these shots to convey a sense of continuity between individual and society, Margaret finds only further disruption.



Allison Willmore for Movieline:

For everything that Margaret is about — mortality, 9/11, the roles fate and chance play in our lives, justice and responsibility — it is foremost a wonderful and complex look at the splendor and awfulness of being 17. The title refers to the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem “Spring and Fall,” a fragment of which (“Margaret, are you grieving/Over Goldengrove unleaving?”) is read in one of the classroom scenes that dapple the film, offering our heroine opportunities to battle a classmate (Hina Abdullah) over issues in the Middle East, to take in literature from her English teacher (Matthew Broderick) and start a mild flirtation with her math instructor (Matt Damon). Like the child in Hopkins’ piece, Lisa is in the grip of distress she can’t fully articulate, some of it brought on by feelings of guilt over Monica’s death, some of it by the way the world fails to stop for the woman’s passing, and some of it just by life not being exactly as she’d wish it. Lonergan, with the help of what turns out to be a very fine performance from Paquin after a shaky start, captures with exquisite clarity the rawness of emotions at that age, the vulnerability and self-righteousness, what it’s like to be able to declare and absolutely believe that no one understands you.
Margaret‘s clutter and the room it insists on taking for its aspirations are glorious things, and while it overreaches, it hits its mark more. It feels like a film that’s been years in the making, and something this rich is worth the wait.



Drew Taylor for The Playlist:

If for some reason you had forgotten that Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret” was filmed more than a half-decade ago, there are reminders everywhere. The credits cite two members of the production team (Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack) who have been dead for several years, and throughout the film there are details – sometimes intrusive, almost always hilarious – about how old this thing is: a child eagerly grips a GameCube controller; a movie marquee advertises Jodie Foster’s “Flightplan”; Matt Damon, so bulky as the suburban father facing a global epidemic in this month’s “Contagion,” is looking very slim like he just came from “The Bourne Identity”; and high school children energetically debate the pros and cons of the Bush administration’s politics. Even the casting seems out-of-time: Anna Paquin, for the past four years known to America as the blonde, psychic firebrand Sookie Stackhouse on “True Blood,” here plays a raven-haired teenager.
But in a strange way, all of this adds to the very specific sensation of watching the film. “Margaret,” named after a character in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Spring and Fall” (discussed by the high-schoolers in the film), feels freshly post-9/11, the gaping wound in New York City still raw and smoldering, and the anxieties and neuroses of an entire city very much on the surface. Often times in “Margaret” the camera will just take to scanning the skyline, glacially taking in the tall, glassy buildings, a reminder of the relative peace that was shattered one fall day.
With so much going on, the movie really hums, especially in the first hour and a half. It’s so refreshing, in an era of quick cuts and jumbled cinematography, to just linger on the inner lives of these characters. There’s an electric charge to both the performances and the way the movie is put together, hopscotching between scenes and characters in an effort, not to build tension exactly, but to create a world populated by people and their emotions. Nothing is ever easily explained – is Lisa just manipulative or genuinely damaged goods? – but that certainly doesn’t take away from the film’s singular power.



Kalvin Henely appreciates the film’s clumsiness, for Slant:

Lonergan breaks away from his debut film’s neat and balanced approach, employing a formal style that seems to mirror its characters’ zig-zagging emotions, unafraid to let his narrative grow sideways, leaving in scenes that feel broken off, subplots that could have been cut, and numerous punctuating shots of random buildings and streets. This is a film that’s more interested in the emotions its characters’ seem subordinate to—the exposed nerves that John Cassavetes was so brilliant at finding in his characters. Unlike Cassavetes, who could direct a movie without a screenplay, Lonergan relies on his writing to carry his direction through, so Paquin should be lauded for the way her brazen performance—such as the manner in which she throws herself into every scene, even those that make Lisa a strident and difficult character to like—rounds out Lonergan’s efforts, bringing depth to his words.
Many have complained that Margaret feels unfinished. But these imperfections work in the sense that they rhyme with the agitation and sense of dislocation the characters feel; they allow unbounded emotions—which at times flow through the characters’ world as strongly as the electricity that powers the film’s New York City setting—to feel recognizably human, alive, and free-forming instead of sculpted and practiced. In all its nakedness and ugliness, Lisa’s evolving self-awareness throughout the film’s 149-minute running time, from the losing of her virginity to the way her guilt for lying to the police about the accident eats away at her and propels her to clumsily try to reconcile the situation, is conveyed with striking keenness.



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