Margaret is a movie that has been one of my 5 most anticipated films each year for the past 7 years. That’s right, 7 years. The film was shot back in 2005, and after going through post-production hell, the movie was deemed “unreleaseable” at one point. There were lawsuits filed over the extension of the editing process, and the original cut of the film (just over 3 hours) was butchered down to an initial 90 minutes, which garnered the film some scathing reviews and made the movie that much harder to get released (Once Upon a Time in America, anyone?). Finally, seven years after the film wrapped, the film was released in a compromised 150 minute form, yet basically no one saw it in theaters. The video release is going to be where the film gets its reputation, featuring the theatrical and extended cuts of the film. Some reviewers who gave the initial version a negative review have viewed the director’s cut and changed it to positive, sometimes in as drastic of a 180 as Ebert’s Brown Bunny fiasco.
Having said all of that, this film is clearly the best film I have seen released in 2011. Kenneth Lonergan (whose only other directorial effort was the brilliant 2000 feature You Can Count on Me) creates a masterwork that ranks with the finest films of the past few years. It is probably the most ambitious film of 2011 (even more that The Tree of Life). It is the most emotionally impactful film of 2011. Even when would you would have expected it to take a scene off from the grief or had an opportunity for an easy way out, Lonergan keeps the scope on his characters and makes the audience feel it. Not every scene works, but the vast majority does. And the ones that do work are richly-drawn and unforgettable.
The film revolves around outspoken Manhattan high school student Lisa Cohen (Oscar-winner Anna Paquin, three years before she first donned a Merlotte's uniform) who witnesses a horrific traffic accident which killed a woman (Allison Janney), an accident that she feels increasingly responsible for. Lisa knows that the driver of the bus (Mark Ruffalo) did not intentionally run her over, but their combined role could be construed as reckless. They both brush it off with no crime filed, yet both feel the deep-seeded guilt over the death of the innocent woman. The film is not a Guillermo Arriaga-type story in which it examines the effect an incident has on everyone involved. The film is about Lisa. It is about her trying to set things right with her screwed view of the world. She pushes away her caring family and concerned teachers. She seeks out a lawsuit against the driver with the best friend of the victim (Jeannie Berlin). She strains every relationship in her life, but the person who is most broken is Lisa herself.
The movie could easily have delved into melodramatic territory and be a burden on the audience, but every scene is so beautifully shot and brilliantly written that the audience is left spellbound for the duration. What is most amazing is that Lisa is not at all a likable character. She is a horrible person who can only justify her actions to herself. She is scathing for no reason to her actress mother (J. Smith-Cameron, Oscar-worthy) and she manipulates everyone around her. When someone tries to make a connection with her and help her get through the grief, like her teacher Mr. Aaron (Oscar-winner Matt Damon), she does nothing but tries to use him for her own reasons. Paquin really digs deep into her character and into our hearts. She gives far and away her best performance ever, and had the film gotten a wide release and more people had seen the film in its rightful form, the full 186 minute cut, there is no doubt in my mind that she could have walked away with the Oscar gold.
The supporting players are uniformly great as well. It is interesting to look at it now, though, considering this astonishing ensemble were near-nobodies at the time of filming. Rosemarie DeWitt has one scene. Michael Ealy has a small part. Olivia Thirlby has a few lines. Sarah Steele (in her second movie) has very limited time. Krysten Ritter has a bit part. It is the more established actors that make the movie click, though. Matthew Broderick, in a somewhat meaningless role, performs admirably. Matt Damon is restrained and sensitive. Mark Ruffalo is fantastic. Kieran Culkin did his thing. Jean Reno is always fun to see. Allison Janney’s scene is devastating. The best-in-show reviews, however went to one of the great “Where the hell have they been?” performances this side of Jackie Earle Haley in Little Children. That actress was Jeannie Berlin, just her third film since her Oscar nom back in 1972. She is emotional and professional, probably the most relatable character in the film, and that is because she is so grounded. Her character is the heart of the second half, but it is still Paquin that still dominates the film.
The screenplay by Lonergan is insightful and is one of the greatest assets of the film. His words are so precise and his characters are all fleshed out to near perfection. He packs so many words into each scene, making each scene seem so vital to the story, and at times, maybe even a bit rushed. Honestly, the film could have even been longer. The audience wants to live in this world for as long as possible. The 150 minute version is a blistering masterpiece, but it almost needs those extra 36 minutes to really complete the story. There is enough that happens in the film to even justify a miniseries. In fact, by the time the credits roll after the beautiful final shot of the film, you will feel as much connection to these characters as you would characters you have watched for an entire season of television. The comparison to Once Upon a Time in America is legitimate. I could have watched Noodles and Max forever. I feel the almost the same about Lisa. Her character is so intriguing and haunting that I cannot help but be captivated by her presence in every shot of the film.
What makes this Margaret so great is how differently it handles the material. It is so immersed in its own atmosphere and characters that it will take time off from the story to make a point about something unrelated just to establish more character development within Lisa, while never losing the film’s razor-sharp edge. She wears her emotions on her sleeve perhaps more than any movie character ever. She overdramatizes everything, but as she says, she is a teenager and her mother is an actress, so it’s not her fault if she overdoes it. Watching Lisa go on her journey through self-justification and emotional hell is both fascinating to watch and intellectually-stimulating. She is a typical high-brow teenage New Yorker. She has a take on everything, despite her lack of education on the subject. She uses and misuses a ridiculous vocabulary. She is snobby and manipulative. The world revolves around her. How could the movie be so appealing then? Just go watch it and see for yourself. It may not be for everyone, but if you get into it, I can promise that you will never be on a more satisfying emotional roller-coaster watching a film. It is worth every penny and every second.
Rating: 4 stars
#1 of 2011