It’s been almost six years since Kenneth Lonergan was supposed to complete his final cut of his follow-up to his highly acclaimed 2000 debut You Can Count On Me for Fox Searchlight Pictures. Margaret clocked in at just over three hours long. The reasons behind the studio’s delay are hearsay, but I read studio bosses ordered the director to make the film shorter or maybe Lonergan did not like the pressure of a deadline, which studios often impose even before a script is finalized. Whatever the case, a bitter battle between filmmaker and studio unfolded that had no winners (Read the “LA Times” article). And there may have just been some winners, including lead actress Anna Paquin who gives the performance of her life (forget her Supporting Actress Oscar® win for the Piano). The director himself might have received praise for his brilliant skill at harnessing the power of his entire cast via his amazing script and the manner he brings it to life via a cinematic craftiness that never seems indulgent, no matter the runtime (Fox Searchlight even tried to squeeze it in for Oscar® consideration). Finally, and most important, patient, open-minded film lovers could have been rewarded by a subtle drama with insight into the difficult nature of being human.
Shot in 2005 and finished in 2008, the year of Slumdog Millionaire, Fox Searchlight seemed to care less about this film and forced it into limbo thanks to legal wrangling with Lonergan. I won’t pretend the studio denied itself a hit bigger than Slumdog because this is one long, stark, low-key film that never compromises its gaze upon the futility of these characters’ attempts to communicate. At the end of 2011, the studio put Margaret out in limited released with a two-and-a-half-hour runtime, and it quietly flopped at the box office. After all the hype and legal battles, the studio finally responded to concerns over the final cut and released it on home video on DVD as an extra disc in the Blu-ray edition, released just last month.
A bit of vindication arrives for Lonergan in Miami Beach when the Miami Beach Cinematheque hosts his director’s cut version of Margaret in a rare theatrical setting. As a film of dynamic human interaction linked together with beautiful moments of operatic music, this is something you want to commit to in a dark room, away from the pause button. After some distracting moments calling attention to the film’s age during the opening credits (The deaths of producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack have become distant memories, and Paquin has since grown out of teenage roles and made a name for herself in the sex-filled “True Blood” HBO series), the film quickly finds its groove as it riffs on people clashing as they put themselves in the center of their own perceived universes. Nothing like death to shake that up.
The movie’s title comes from the short poem “Spring and Fall: To a Young Child” written by the Victorian-era poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Ultimately, the poem states, death is sad because the observer of death will die as well (read the poem here). If you are not familiar with the poem and its resonance within the film’s drama, at some point in the film, an English teacher (Matthew Broderick) at the Manhattan private school of the film’s main character, Lisa Cohen (Paquin), will read it to his class. This occurs deep into the movie, long after one of the most harrowing death sequences committed to film is experienced by Lisa. The movie is a variation of that one statement that lingers over Lisa’s motivation to try to make the bus accident “right:” “I guess it was green,” she says regarding the traffic light a bus ran before running over and killing a pedestrian (Allison Janney). Lisa seems to save the bus driver’s (Mark Ruffalo) job, not to mention clear up her own contribution to his negligence, when she says “I guess it was green” to the traffic homicide investigator at the scene. “I guess it was green” makes for one warped way of twisting her perception of reality, which the audience knows, thanks to a cutaway to the light just before the crash, runs against her statement. The biggest truth of all, however, is death. There is no correcting that finality and the petite mort Lisa suffers as a result of holding the dying woman in her arms. The experience will prove unshakable no matter how Lisa tries to spin her life for the rest of the movie. The awareness of that resonates throughout the entire film and informs the drama to operatic heights.
In order to emphasize perspective, Lonergan always positions his steady camera as if looking at people from the outside, never from the other character’s perspective. He takes it a step further by sometimes offering snippets of conversations from unseen characters, out of frame, totally off topic to the concerns of the main characters. At the police station, when Margaret tries to re-open the case and amend her statement, during a distant establishing shot of the building, you hear someone off camera, in some unseen, out-of-context conversation, say “My fucking cousin stole that shit.” During a slow pan over the high-rises of New York City, you hear a kid somewhere outside, again off camera, say, “It’s ‘Dashing through the snow,’” a meta comment on perception in the film if there ever was one. By allowing us to overhear other inconsequential conversations the main characters seem unaware of, Lonergan is reminding the audience that there are other people in this world with things to say and clarify. Even the honking of car horns in the distance as Monica Patterson lies dying in the street have a significance in showing the audience that life goes on despite one person’s death. To Lisa, a teenager on a journey toward her own fate, it becomes a revelation and an exercise in futility. “There’s people dying in the street!” she yells at her divorced actress mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) when the mother asks her why she is not showing much interest in the play she will star in and her new boyfriend Ramon (Jean Reno).
Margaret also reveals there is something more painful than one-way conversations: none at all. There are those dead-ends in life when people fail to communicate and are left on their own, like Lisa’s schoolmate (John Gallagher Jr.) who has a crush on her but seems too shy to make the right moves. On a night he calls her up to just say hello, she tells him, “I don’t feel like talking.” He responds, “OK,” and they hang up. He breaks down crying, sitting alone on his bed. She then calls the bad boy/drug dealer in school (Kieran Culkin) and asks him to take her virginity. Lisa’s mother shares a similar moment of not breaking through to Lisa, and she too has a cry alone, in their apartment building’s elevator.
Lonergan riffs on this clash of communication, and he always keeps it interesting, as long and seemingly meandering as this movie seems. It falls into a sort of groove. Gluing it together is either applause or the soaring melodies of opera music, as there are cutaways to scenes of Lisa as a PA in drama class, her mother on stage in her play or visits to the Metropolitan opera house. The barriers in the dialogue continue, whether it’s the wall a math teacher (Matt Damon) puts up against Lisa’s sexual advances or the desperate but half-assed reaching out Joan does to her daughter. When Joan attends an opera with Ramon, she leans over to him to say, “It’s beautiful.” He hushes her. It’s a sick but funny commentary that seems to say you must listen to people when they are on stage singing in a foreign language.
Lonergan masterfully weaves the sublime with the mundane throughout Margaret. The opera on stage matters just as much, if not more sometimes, that the opera of life. That is why he often places the music of Wagner and Strauss in other scenes between conversations, when Lisa walks the street in slow motion, obviously alone in her thought. By doing this the director emphasizes the weight of this accident on Lisa without flashing back to it.
When the bus accident occurs early on, it makes for a harrowing thing to behold. Monica is fleshed out even as she lies dying in Lisa’s arms. Lisa talks to her and she learns she shares the same name as Monica’s daughter. Monica bitches about receiving help from strangers if they are not doctors. The horror comes home with Lisa in the form of her blood-splattered clothing and face. “What happened to you?” says her grossed out little brother Curtis (Cyrus Hernstadt) looking up from a video game as Lisa strides to her bedroom. Then she vomits with no sound except for the classical music piece on the film’s soundtrack. She showers in slow motion with blood still splattering off her hair. Though she visits the movies later with some friends, the extra-diegetic music continues from since she vomited. As the music hangs over successive scenes, even when she tries to sit still in the movie theater, Lonergan is preserving the horror of the event earlier in the day. Whatever gruesome quality is captured in that key scene involving Monica’s death is justified, as it only exists as a powerful memory in order to inform the rest of this long movie, and Lisa must bear the trauma and struggle to come to terms with it without seeing a psychologist. It’s a confident, powerful move for Lonergan to skip the hokey flashbacks many lesser directors would resort to.
Toward the end of the film Lisa finds some purpose when she meets Monica’s best friend and power-of-attorney holder Emily (Jeannie Berlin). They join forces to try to find some justice for Monica. A conversation with a lawyer friend of Emily’s (Michael Ealy) turns to almost black humor as the trio try to figure out how much pain Monica was in just before her death. If these people do not hear one another out, how could they pretend to even come close to concluding the pain of a dying person?
When Lisa and Emily finally get together with Monica’s next-of-kin to discuss a settlement with the bus company the conversations are tense and powerful, as discussions turn into a battle of righteousness. In the end, all that seems to matter is what these very different characters seem to deem as “right,” as opposed to the truth, which is really the horror of that accident and its banal finality. The only thing wrong was that this woman was left broken in this teenager’s arms. Lisa seems to try to make some sense of it because she only happens to share Monica’s daughter’s name. But it’s the opposite of coincidence. It is chaos. When Lisa shares this observation with Emily with only good intentions, Emily lashes out: “… this isn’t an opera! And we are not all supporting characters to the drama of your amazing life!” to Lisa’s shock.
In the end, the film closes on an ironic note, as Lonergan returns to the opera house for a performance of The Tales of Hoffmann, a French opera by Jacques Offenbach. Lisa accompanies her mother. As the two divas on stage finally harmonize during the opera’s famous build up in “belle nuit ô nuit d’amour,” Lisa has a quiet but powerful cry. We may all be the central characters of our own private operas, but we will all also die. Someone else will have a say of what our memory is worth to them, and life will go on.
The extended version of Margaret is rated R and has a runtime of 186 min. It premieres in South Florida on Friday, Aug. 3 at 8 p.m. and plays through Aug. 8, at the same hour each day, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. The theater hosted a preview screening for the purposes of this review. Many probably don’t have a theater as bold as the MBC screening this extended version of the film anywhere near them. You can always purchase the Blu-Ray/DVD combo, with the extended version on DVD (Support the Independent Ethos, purchase on Amazon). Fair warning: DVD is the only format Fox Searchlight has made the extended version available. This is the format the MBC will screen via its up-converting hi-def projector.
(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)