A critical movement saved Margaret from burial; here’s why it deserved a second chance

A critical movement saved Margaret from burial; here’s why it deserved a second chance

“My dear Tavy, your pious English habit of regarding the world as a moral gymnasium built expressly to strengthen your character in, occasionally leads you to think about your own confounded principles when you should be thinking about other people’s necessities.” —George Bernard Shaw, Man And Superman

The story of Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan’s wounded yet triumphant follow-up to 2000’s You Can Count On Me, has been told many times, with good reason—it’s the rare case when critical advocacy has made a direct, tangible difference in the life of a film. This happens in less-tangible ways all the time, especially with true independent films, which rely on good notices to compensate for a shortage of promotional resources. But the groundswell of support for Margaret—and the many bounties that resulted, culminating in a longer and significantly more satisfying cut on DVD—accomplished something much harder by changing the media narrative. When Fox Searchlight finally released Margaret in late September 2011, it was given the Bucky Larson treatment, left for dead after six years of ugly wrangling in the editing room and bitter fallout from litigation. In spite of Lonergan’s bona fides and a big-name ensemble cast, it was marked as a disaster, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy. (I saw the last show on the last night of its one-week run in Chicago, and there were just two people in the audience, me and another critic.) Born of passion (and a certain degree of movie-critic entitlement), the #teammargaret movement adopted a hobbling orphan, wiped the smudges off its face, and allowed the world to see how beautiful this volatile kid was at heart. Normally, it takes many years and persistent scholarship for calamities to become classics, but the Internet authored this stirring tale of redemption in the space of a few weeks. 

Clocking in mere seconds shorter than its contractually obligated 150 minutes, the theatrical version of Margaret is the very definition of “flawed masterpiece,” an inherently messy drama made messier by abandoned subplots and one out-of-the-blue revelation that helps blunt the impact of the last half hour. I loved the theatrical cut—seven or eight staggeringly brilliant scenes and a thematic agenda as ambitious as any American film released in the last decade tends to compensate for a little post-production butchery—but the 188-minute “extended version,” released on the DVD/BD two weeks ago, is a much different experience, and an even better one, restoring balance and adding depth to a film that was once visibly scarred. Lonergan has been careful not to call this longer Margaret a “director’s cut,” perhaps because it’s rough and unfinished by nature, but this is the closest thing to the true Margaret, and the one that should exist for posterity. (Though a supplemental disc on a dwindling format makes posterity a little shaky.) Though the cult of Margaret rallied around the shorter version, I wanted to use this column in part to make a case for the super-deluxe experience, which stands to intensify feelings for it in either direction. 

The first thought I had seeing the trailer for Margaret was, “How in the world did it take six years to put this thing together?” My first thought after seeing the movie was, “No wonder.” At its core, the moral dilemma that sets the film into motion is deceptively simple: Lisa Cohen, the frisky 17-year-old New Yorker played by Anna Paquin, witnesses a distracted bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) accidentally running over a pedestrian (Allison Janney). Does she tell the truth about what she saw—that the driver ran a red light—and potentially ruin his life? Or does she lie about it and protect him, even though it puts a blot on her conscience and keeps a dangerous driver on the road? It seems like a clear enough choice, but Lonergan piles on the complications: Chiefly, Lisa holds herself partly responsible for the accident, because she was the one doing the distracting. Had she not run alongside the bus, flirting with the driver over a cowboy hat she covets for a trip to see her father in New Mexico, he surely would stopped at the light. 

Though Lisa initially relieves the driver of blame on the police report, the process of reconsidering that decision sends her deeper into the morass. She seeks advice from her mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), who supports her in protecting the driver—who must have a family, after all, and it’s not like losing his job will bring the victim back to life—but as Lisa becomes more convinced she should tell the truth, her resentment and hostility toward her mother grows more lacerating. She pays an unannounced visit to the driver, who disappoints her further by refusing to acknowledge his negligence, even though they both know what really happened. He’s like a conspirator who won’t admit to his co-conspirator that they’re conspiring. (See part of that scene below.) Lisa then sinks deeper in the muck when she joins forces with the victim’s closest friend, Emily (Jeannie Berlin), on a lawsuit to find some measure of justice, even though criminal charges are unlikely, and any settlement money from the MTA will go to the victim’s risible extended family in Arizona.

Though the case gives the film a narrative through-line and a strong moral question, one of the key points about Margaret is that it isn’t about the case—if it were, it would be enormously frustrating and indulgent. The accident and its fallout just serve as the engine for an epic coming-of-age story, which accounts for why Lonergan takes a full hour between the accident and Lisa’s first steps toward setting the record straight. In that stretch of time, she’s seen furiously debating classmates over 9/11 and Israeli-Palestine relations, recklessly testing her sexual powers by making a pass at her math teacher (Matt Damon), and thwarting her closest friend’s affections for a pot dealer. In short, Lisa is finding herself, which Lonergan treats as a volatile, dangerous process for anyone who crosses her path. She’s like an emotional IED, whose detonation leaves no shortage of collateral damage.

This raises another key point about Margaret: Teenagers are often full of shit. That George Bernard Shaw quote above, cited partially in the film, applies to Lisa’s misadventures after the accident. She does indeed treat the case as a “moral gymnasium” without much sensitivity toward the people whom its outcome affects. In her uglier moments, she casts herself as the heroine in this melodrama, and while her feelings of responsibility and outrage are completely authentic, her quest for truth steamrolls over other considerations. She’s cruel to her mother. She’s callous to her friend. She’s pompous and condescending to the detective in charge of the case. And she uses her body to manipulate people, sometimes just for sport. Loving Margaret means recognizing and accepting that Lisa is a work in progress who makes mistakes—sometimes grievous, outrageous ones—on the road to maturity. Lonergan tries to bottle her combustible spirit, but even at 188 minutes, he properly lets some of the mess stay messy. 

At the same time, Margaret is about the idealism of youth being sullied by the corruptions of adulthood. Getting some justice for the victim—if that’s even possible—sends Lisa through a legal system that’s compromised and woefully inadequate to the task. Dollar figures mean nothing to her, since she doesn’t stand to make a dime on the civil case, and it’s odd that money could stand in for justice, especially when the victim’s hated relatives will ultimately benefit. There’s some wisdom to her mother’s initial advice to lie to the police—and no doubt personal experience, too, since she’s a parent who relies on steady acting jobs to support her own family—but it’s nonetheless inherently corrupt, which gives Lisa’s resentment a legitimate source. Being an adult, she discovers, is about banal, practical things like making money and holding onto your social station, and higher ideals can often wither in the face of that.

Margaret’s extended cut has a more operatic quality than the theatrical version—again, those who outright hated it the first time will likely be more turned off now—and it brings all the relationships into proper balance, especially Lisa’s contentious, hurtful but ultimately powerful bond with her mother. The one consequence is that Lisa’s relationship with Emily—whom Berlin plays with a prickly ferocity that suggests Lisa in middle age—gets less emphasis, but that’s only proper, because their alliance has no life beyond the case, whereas Joan will always be Lisa’s mother. And without getting into spoiler territory, the third-act bombshell that comes out of nowhere in the theatrical version is much more carefully wrought in the long cut. The short cut rushes to the end, like a writer squeezing text into the bottom corner of the last page of a notebook. Now the final scene hits with titanic force.

The Margaret cult may seem, from the outside, like a handful of critics posturing behind a rightful outcast, or marinating in their own minor triumph. But it’s truly a major piece of work, ambitious and prismatic, and teeming with emotion. The angles into it are endless—it happens to be, among other things, a vivid barometer for how the country was feeling after 9/11—and even its elisions (though fewer now) seem like mysteries worth solving. #Teammargaret may have begun as a provincial cause, prodding the studio to unhand some screeners for awards consideration, but Margaret is everyone’s movie now. And it’s a corker. 

Coming Up: 
August 16: Hot Rod
September 6: Twelve Monkeys
September 27: Bound