DVD OF THE WEEK: Margaret
by Vadim Rizov
's opening minutes, 17-year-old Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin
) doesn't seem like a rewarding subject for a 150-minute character study (the length of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan
's theatrically released cut), let alone the 188 minutes of the "extended cut" assembled for Fox Searchlight's Blu-ray
combo release. Chided by teacher Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon
) for obviously cheating (on an open book test!), Lisa flatly rejects the idea that she's ever developed an interest in something she initially thought was boring. Next, when gawky/clever crib note provider Darren (John Gallagher Jr.
) asks her for a date, she disbelievingly laughs in his face. Then she goes shopping for a cowboy hat.
Already, incurious materialist Lisa's life has accrued unasked-for moral urgency. Her search for a hat frustrated, she spots bus driver Jason (Mark Ruffalo
) wearing one. Running alongside the bus, waving to catch his eye, she looks distractingly flirty without meaning to. The ensuing accident is depicted without ambiguity: head turned, Jason doesn't notice that he's about to run a red light and plows into Monica Patterson (Allison Janney
), who dies bloodily in Lisa's arms. The light was green, Lisa tells the officers on the scene, but wonders what version of events to give in her official statement. Actress mom Joan (J. Smith-Cameron
) warns that the driver probably has a wife and kids to support, cautioning that telling the truth could lead to him losing his job. Lisa covers for the driver, and spends the rest of the film goaded into increasing frenzy by her guilt.
Lisa's nearly always on-screen, minus a subplot about Joan's developing relationship with wealthy Colombian admirer Juan (Jean Reno
). Here, Lonergan's relish for near-burlesque gets a workout: Reno's heavily accented performance is charming in a sort of Peter Sellers
way, a heightened portrayal of a respectable man made unavoidably comic by his broad accent. His thoughts on Israel's tyranny don't sit well during a dinner with the late Monica's very
Jewish friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin
), who throws a drink in his face before storming out of the restaurant. The scene, like many in Margaret
, is close to a social comedy of manners, as two people from entirely dissimilar backgrounds struggle to maintain small-talk decorum during an awkward dinner involving mutual acquaintances.
's powered by the crackle of colliding worlds. Beyond guilt and culpability, Lonergan's main subject is Lisa's dawning realization that the world exists far beyond her limited experience. In repeated conflicts with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, Margaret
simulates chaos, cutting many scenes to seemingly random shards while stealthily building to a well-prepared gut-punch of a finale. The film's initial images—Manhattan streets in daylight, alternating between slow-motion and regular time—suggest we try to single out a point of connection. Sometimes the film isolates a meaningful fragment (kids dancing, a middle-aged man gazing up in beguiled distraction at something offscreen), and sometimes it's impossible to latch onto anything in the random groupings.
Empathy is visually defined as an act of conscious focus, a lesson Lisa may or may not learn over the film's running time, but viewers won't be slow to pick up on it. It's arguable Lonergan overplays his intentions in his repeated pans across and zooms into anonymous cityscapes seen from privileged high-altitude building vantage points and in many street-level crowd shots. They're a pleasure to watch, already archival records of Lisa's cocooned Upper West Side life in 2005, when the film was initially shot.
Lisa strives to correct a well-intentioned mistake (lying out of class guilt) in the clumsiest possible way. Prodded by Emily, she gets involved with a proposed lawsuit aimed at getting the reckless driver suspended or fired. An unintended side benefit of seeking this kind of moral corrective is literal proximity to adulthood, as Lisa ditches her ostensible best friends for meetings with lawyers and strategy sessions with Emily. Striving to build a relationship with her new best-friend-of-circumstance, Lisa babbles about her role in the accident. Emily snaps ("We are not all supporting characters to the drama of your amazing life"), and kicks her out.
Bit players and passing overheard dialogue suggest whole other movies. One moment's impact is wordless: English teacher Tassel (Matthew Broderick
) finds Lisa and her friend smoking pot in Central Park and chides them for "smoking a J" before a school soccer game. Their stoned, mocking repetition of the outdated phrase follows him along with a queasy handheld shot from behind of Broderick stalking away in impotent rage. Everyone on screen is flawlessly characterized no matter how little time they have. Lonergan's successful ability to plausibly inhabit multiple characters' voices (whose words can't possibly be mistaken as redundant expressions of one writer's viewpoint) is a rarity.
Per Lonergan's instructions, cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski
hazes Lisa the whole movie, repeatedly de-emphasizing her in slow zooms or losing her entirely. The accident is depicted from multiple angles giving objective information, but the final impact is depicted through a POV depiction of Allison Janney's head slamming to the ground, the only subjective shot (an addition to the "extended cut"). In the finale, Lisa's self-centered perspective finally converges with the camera's eye. Mother and daughter are at Lincoln Center for The Tales of Hoffman
. At intermission, Lisa stands alone, smoking on the balcony, then realizes the second act is about to start. Throwing the cigarette out, she rushes downstairs and the camera follows her from behind all the way.
Finally, Lisa is the drama's heroine and literal center. She makes her way back to Joan, and as the second act's "Barcarolle" duet starts, the house lights don't go down. Camera shots alternate mother and daughter nearing tears with inserts of happily hypnotized audience members. In reality, the Met dims its lights, but Lisa and Joan hug in a golden glow, a moment theatrically heightened to heartbreaking effect. It's not the first fully stylized gesture (there's a refreshingly non-embarrassing dream sequence), but the full-throated concession to romantic sentiment gets to you. Margaret
makes nothing less than the subjective acquisition of adult empathy its subject, and succeeds amazingly.
The hype surrounding Margaret
was stoked by its well-documented pre-production turmoil, delayed release and critical resurrection, all neatly summarized in a New York Times article
. While it'd be nice to discard this narrative before it overwhelms the actual film, it should be noted that Fox Searchlight is releasing Margaret
to DVD along with an "extended cut" — a nice gesture, but a bit of a half-measure. This label is fairly accurate, since the 188-minute version is clearly a rough cut, complete with often-amateurish post-production sound and shaky visual quality. Projected this past Monday night in Manhattan, it was something of a video nightmare.
This is a supplemental document to watch at home rather than something ready for theatrical projection. It's great that it exists, but those who haven't seen Margaret
yet should watch the theatrical cut first. Even in its compromised form (assembled by Martin Scorsese
and Thelma Schoonmaker
), it's a dazzling and wrenching film, arguably strengthened by spoiler-ific decisions that shouldn't quite be discussed until more people have had a chance to see it.
The new cut does contain one scene that's a fully fleshed-out suggestion of what could've been. A simple diner chat between Lisa and Darren is counterbalanced by a slow zoom towards the pair that takes in three booths, and hence three other conversations. It's impossible to pick out which to focus on at first, heightening the urgency of this effectively non-narrative scene and explicitly decentering Lisa via audio, something the film otherwise mostly does visually. Many clearly transcribed-from-life passing quotables have been dubbed in with varying degrees of quality, demanding an actively sympathetic viewer's support to reconstruct the full potential effect. Still, this cut looks and sounds rough: you'll want to see it, but go with the theatrical version first.
Posted by ahillis at July 11, 2012 11:06 AM