Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With the fabled Snyder Cut improbably making its way to HBO Max this week, we’re looking back on other significant directors’ cuts.
“No good movie is too long,” Roger Ebert wrote long ago, “and no bad movie is short enough.” It’s definitely possible for a good movie to be too short, however. Case in point: the theatrically released cut of Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan’s long-awaited—and long-delayed—sophomore feature. Contractually obligated to deliver a movie running no more than two and a half hours, Lonergan spent some five years in the editing room (on and off) struggling to hit that arbitrary mark without debilitating his baby; the version that finally arrived in theaters runs precisely two hours, 29 minutes, and 53 seconds. It’s a masterful job, in hindsight, managing to preserve the contours of the wildly ambitious project that Lonergan had in mind. But Margaret was expressly designed as an unprecedented sort of epic, and only the three-hour “extended cut” (included as a bonus disc with the Blu-ray, albeit in standard definition) realizes its full potential.
In theory, it’d be possible to edit a version of the film with a standard runtime, focusing on its ostensible plot: A teenage girl named Lisa (Anna Paquin) distracts a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), causing him to run a red light and kill a pedestrian (Allison Janney, in a brief but wrenching turn). Lisa initially lies to the police to protect the driver, but guilt at her own responsibility for the accident eventually drives her to set in motion a lawsuit designed to get the guy fired. That’s the synopsis of a potentially fine drama, but it’s not the movie that Lonergan wanted to make. Margaret (which features no character of that name; the title comes from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem) seeks to examine the full scope of Lisa’s life during this traumatic period: her turbulent relationship with her mother (future Succession star J. Smith-Cameron), her awkward first sexual experience (with future Succession star Kieran Culkin), her classes at a tony New York prep school, and so forth. Virtually every plot-driven movie ever made ignores what its protagonist does during lulls in the action; Margaret lives in those lulls, constantly reminding you that a whole teeming, messy world is happening, not just to this young woman but to every single person around her.
There’s just enough of this element in the theatrical version to get the idea across, but too little to prevent the film’s deliberate digressions from coming across to many as weirdly irrelevant. In the extended cut, there’s no mistaking what Lonergan is up to. One restored scene early on spends several minutes slowly pushing toward Lisa and a guy she’s dumping (John Gallagher Jr.) as they talk in a diner’s corner booth; for a while, we hear not them but the conversations of others around them, featuring mini-dramas that are every bit as important to these anonymous extras as Lisa’s effort to deflect the guy’s romantic ardor is to her. In the theatrical version, Lisa seduces her math teacher (Matt Damon), then, in a moment of emotional stress, accosts him and a woman (either his girlfriend or another teacher) on the street and tells them, out of nowhere, that she had an abortion. This seems to be a lie meant to hurt him, but the extended cut reveals that it isn’t, and better explains why Damon is in the movie at all.
Most crucially, the extended cut forgets about the bus accident for a good long while (with pointed reminders here and there), making it much clearer that the movie isn’t really about that, even though Lisa’s lawsuit takes up much of its second half. (By that point, an entire 90-minute feature has already elapsed.) Admittedly, there are downsides to watching this version, which was never properly finished and both looks and sounds comparatively rough. Lonergan had thought about using classical and operatic music throughout, rather than the original score he wound up commissioning from Nico Muhly, and he incorporates that approach here in a way that doesn’t quite work; the final opera scene, in particular, has more power when it’s not immediately preceded by a stirring passage from Wagner’s Lohengrin (which is not the opera they’ll be watching on screen). Still, those minor infelicities are outweighed by the opportunity to experience Margaret as it was truly and boldly meant to be.
Availability: The extended cut of Margaret is currently streaming on HBO Max, though it’s hidden in the “Extras” link. Otherwise you’ll get the theatrical version.