“Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s spríngs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.”
~Gerard Manley Hopkins, Spring and Fall: To A Young Child
The following is a review/analysis of the Extended 3-hour cut of Margaret. I still haven’t seen the original theatrical cut, which is half an hour shorter, but upon reading some articles that explain the differences between the two, I concur that the Extended Cut is the definitive version of the film. I’m well aware that writer/director Kenneth Lonergan doesn’t consider it so, since there was a much-longer Director’s Cut that was 3 hours and 30 minutes if I remember correctly. But that was never released. The only versions you, the reader, are able to watch are the Theatrical and the Extended, and in my opinion, the Extended Cut is the definitive version. Just don’t take my word for it 100% because I still haven’t seen the Theatrical cut, but from my understanding, the Extended Cut has more dialogue and more scenes that truly express the psychological turmoil of its main character, so it is the definitive version in my book.
With all of that out of the way, let me tell you why a.) you’ve never heard of Margaret and b.) you need to rectify that.
Why You’ve Never Heard of Margaret
In 2003, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, who is also a playwright and has only one other film on his resume, started work on an epic titled Margaret. He got a ton of recognizable actors to star in it as supporting roles (Matt Damon, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, etc.) and a rising young actress by the name of Anna Paquin (Who won an Oscar as an 11-year old for her supporting role in Jane Campion’s The Piano) to play the lead role.
The film started its shoot in 2006 and was scheduled to release in 2007. However, there was a problem: It was over 3 hours long. That didn’t necessarily mean it was too long or too boring, but it did make the movie a hard sell. Fox Searchlight, the film’s distributors, said that they wouldn’t release the film unless it was 150 minutes or under. Legend Martin Scorsese, who had a chance of seeing the original cut and found it to be a masterpiece, decided he would help in creating a two and a half hour cut. The cut was finished with help from Thelma Schoonmaker, but it ended up not seeing the light of day.
The film’s producer disapproved of the cut, sparking a lawsuit, which eventually lead to two more lawsuits which I am not sure of the nature of. To say that the movie was in development hell was an understatement. Despite being shot at 2006, it didn’t reach theaters until 2011, when Fox Searchlight finally gave in and released Scorsese’s 150 minute cut. But, while the film finally got a release, it came at a price. It ended up releasing at the most minimum of Academy requirements: It was in theaters for one week only, and it was only in very few cities in America.
Margaret quietly died in the theaters. Many critics and film bloggers started a Twitter campaign called #TeamMargaret that eventually helped the film play in a few more theaters for a few more days, and gave it a cult following. But even in the realm of cult followings, Margaret‘s audience is still incredibly small and doesn’t grow that much.
Why You Should See Margaret
Why did I tell you this story? Because I’m about to say some things that may sound like flat-out hyperbole, but you have to understand my reason for doing so. My reason for giving this film such high regard doesn’t just come from the fact that this is a truly remarkable film, it also comes from the fact that not many people have seen it. Granted, there are tons of movies I see that not many people have seen, but this one has gone through such a long process to finally reach the public, that I couldn’t help but feel like making sure that the long process was worth it if it meant it found more of an audience.
So yeah. In short, Margaret is, in fact, a masterpiece. A largely misunderstood masterpiece, at that. It has only a 70% at Rotten Tomatoes and a 6/10 user rating on iMDB. I usually do not care for Rotten Tomatoes ratings, let alone the opinions of the largely idiotic users on iMDB, but it really struck me how much of the negativity stemmed from a complete misunderstanding of the material. And to top it all off: Not many people defended it to these people. And the main reason for that is that this is a hard movie to talk about. It’s hard to express what it is that makes it good because what it’s best at is something hard to articulate.
It also doesn’t help that the plot doesn’t look all too appealing at first glance. Margaret is the story of a teenage girl named Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) living in New York City. Her simple life is irrevocably shattered when she witnesses a bus accident that claims the life of an innocent woman who was just out to get groceries. And worst of all: She is partially responsible for it. Throughout the rest of the film, she seeks justice of some sort, any sort, that could get the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) tried or arrested or fired, while also dealing with her own inner turmoil ad grief.
So yeah, it sounds like a pretty whatever plot. And you can argue that it is a whatever plot. But the plot is not what this film is about. You see, different movies are good at different things. Just because 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life don’t follow conventional storytelling methods, doesn’t make them any less of masterpieces because their strength is in mood and expressing abstract ideas through symbolic (and gorgeous) imagery.
And Margaret‘s strength rests in something that is just as remarkable as expressing abstractities through imagery: It simply expresses abstractities. It doesn’t really do it through imagery, or mood, or storytelling that highlights ideas over plot. It’s just simply able to express the inexpressible.
After a lot of wrestling with this film, I’ve finally found the single word that best describes Margaret: Raw. This is a film that expresses everything it wants to convey in its ugliest, rawest form possible. Now, a lot of movies have been called “raw”, such as Winter’s Bone or Frozen River or Chop Shop, but critics like calling those films “raw” because of their grittiness and the way that they show a different side of American life that moviegoers aren’t used to viewing.
Margaret is raw in a different sense. It isn’t necessarily gritty in the same way that 25th Hour is gritty, and nothing about it is overly showy or theatrical. It is raw, however, in the way it takes you into its characters’ psyches. But many movies have done that, right? You may remember my love for films Martha Marcy May Marlene and Black Swan, which really took you into the damaged psyches of their respective main female characters in a way that makes you truly feel like you’re in their shoes. But Margaret does it differently. While those films used style to carry you into the psyche of a damaged woman, Margaret is more authentic.
I really can’t describe how it does it, because Kenneth Lonergan accomplishes this in numerous ways: The dialogue, the sound design, the facial expressions, the performances in general, the tone, tons of little details that fill the screen that you might not even notice, etc. As you can see, it’s hard to critique and let alone review this movie by saying what it is it does right because what it does right is show each character in a brilliantly nuanced, sympathetic light that is accomplished through all sorts of directions. So I’m able to do something different…
The scene that really personifies Margaret, for me, is the bus accident scene. Everything about this scene perfectly captures what it is that makes Margaret so remarkable, so what I’m about to do is describe it in every detail that I possibly can.
The Accident Scene
Lisa is looking for an authentic cowboy hat in preparation for a horseback riding trip with her father (Played, coincidentally, by the film’s writer/director Kenneth Lonergan), who is divorced from her mother (Played by his real-life wife J. Smith Cameron). She can’t seem to find one anywhere in all the trendy hat shops she visits, and is about ready to give up. Eventually, she sees a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) with one on. She waves at him as he leaves, trying to ask him where he got the hat. The bus driver can’t hear her, and just keeps waving back and trying to understand what she’s saying.
While he’s distractd by Lisa’s waving, he fails to see the red light and the pedestrian (Allison Janney) that was crossing in his way. When he turns to look back at the road, he slams the breaks as hard as he can, but of course, it is too late. The woman is trampled under the bus, each tire breaking her bones until the whole bus has literally gone over her. She lies on the street covered in her own blood, still barely breathing. One of her legs is still under the bus, completely cut clean off her body. The other leg is bent all the way back, acting almost as a cushion from the gravel and concrete below her.
Lisa screams in terror, the bus driver is catatonic in shock, a crowd of New Yorkians slowly realize that they have all witnessed a tragedy. Lisa is the first to go the woman, embracing her in her arms trying to see if she’s still alive. Unlike most accident scenes, however, this one is kind of surreal. While the tone is definitely consistent, the scene has elements that are surreal, darkly humorous, grotesque, and heart-wrenching. You know, less like a movie and more like real life.
The victim of the crash starts asking her “What happened? Am I dead?” in a tone of voice that at first starts out as mildly annoyed rather than truly dying, only to escalate in intensity the more she realizes what has happened. When Lisa tells her what happened, her first response is literally “You gotta be kidding me. A bus?!”
A man tries tending to her wounds, but has blood spewed all over his suit like mustard from a squirt bottle. An ambulance is on its way, but the pain and the realization that she’s probably not going to make it starts to overwhelm the victim. She tells Lisa not to let go of her, to keep holding her in her arms.
Finally, this leads to the most heartbreaking interlude between the victim’s life and death. She says, “I can’t see anything…are my eyes open or closed?” Lisa regrettably has to tell her. Her voice cracks as she tells her, “They’re open.” A look of horror befalls the victim’s face. “Wh…What do you mean?”
She starts asking for someone to call her daughter. Lisa begs for her daughter’s name and number so she can call her, but she keeps repeating the name “Lisa”. Lisa keeps trying to tell her that that’s her name, asking if that’s the name of her daughter too and what her number is. She never gives it to her.
The two men who were tending to her wounds tell Lisa, “She’s gone. There’s nothing we can do.” Lisa refuses to believe them, holding the dead woman in her arms, telling her the ambulance is on the way, begging for her daughter’s number. But the woman’s body goes limp, her eyes stare blankly into the sky, and she doesn’t give her daughter’s name. Lisa screams at the realization that she’s gone, knowing that there was some part of this woman’s death that was all her fault. The film fades to black before moving onto the next scene.
This scene is one of the most powerful I’ve seen in recent memory. There’s not a single moment that has been manipulated, not a single moment where the actors’ reactions don’t resonate, and it’s not afraid to be as ugly as possible. It’s just a raw, human moment that feels less like a grand emotional set-piece and more like a slice of life that has been cut with tragedy. It’s a completely perfect, emotionally transcendent scene.
This is what the whole movie does so well. It brings you so close to these characters’ psyches through the details. All of their words, actions, and reactions matter. Lisa acts the way she does and says the things that she says because it reveals something about her character. A part of her feels responsible. This guilt will eat away at her until she finds someone else to shift the blame, or a way to put things right and prevent something like this from ever happening. And if you look closely, every single detail in the film reveals a truth about either the characters, the situations, etc.
This leads to the second word the best describes Margaret: Nuanced.
Nothing’s Ever Simple
There is a scene in the Extended Cut (but not in the Theatrical) that perfectly encapsulates Lisa’s tormented psyche after the accident. She’s sitting in a restaurant, talking to her boyfriend. As they’re having a long conversation unbroken by zero cuts, you can hear what the other people in the restaurant are talking about. A pair of elderly woman talk about an ugly dog just as Lisa’s boyfriend is saying that things might not work out for them. The conversations intercut one another, creating a disharmony. Why are we being forced to listen to these old ladies talk about an ugly dog, when our main character is going through an emotional crisis?
Because as Lisa’s perspective changes after the accident, so does the film. Before, life for Lisa just revolved around Lisa. Now, the cracks are letting the ugly truth slip in, empathy takes its toll, and not only does Lisa see the others living around her in her life, she sees life for what it is: Trivial. A woman has just died because of her, and all the world offers for her is the old ladies talking about the ugly dog.
This is the emotional hell that Lisa lives through in this sprawling journey. Her realization not only that nothing lasts forever, but life will go on in spite of this. She tries to fight this by setting things right, going back to that innocent state she was in before where nothing is wrong. She starts to search for someone to shift the blame towards, leading to a lawsuit that could get the bus driver fired, hoping that justice of any kind could get rid of the sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach, unaware of the tragedy that it will never go away because it’s just another part of growing up.
Lisa Cohen is a deeply flawed character. She can be petty, annoying, and downright irresponsible sometimes. Because of this, I’ve heard many of the film’s detractors say that they couldn’t sympathize with her because they found her petty, annoying, and irresponsible. But a flawed character is not the same as a bad one.
What Lonergan does in his creation of Lisa is perfectly capture the teenage woman in all its messy, human glory. Considering I’ve lived around teenage girls for five or six years thanks to high school and my own younger sisters, Lonergan nails this perfectly. Not just because of all the qualities I mentioned above, but also because in spite of those flaws, she’s still sympathetic. We understand the wave of conflicting emotions she’s going through because, well, all of us experience that at some point in our transitioning years from teenage to adulthood, and I honestly don’t get how anyone could not sympathize with that.
The other reason why Lisa works so brilliantly as a character is because of Anna Paquin.
When I saw the Extended Cut at the LACMA, it opened with Lonergan introducing the film, thanking various critics for pushing the movie’s profile, and a strong amount of what I at first thought of to be total hyperbole towards Anna Paquin’s performance. He described Paquin as the best actor he’s ever worked with, and said that she gave one of the best performances he’s ever seen, not just in a movie he worked in, but of all time. It was definitely a little hard to swallow considering this was coming from the man that directed her and he was probably just overly enthusiastic of his protege.
Now that I’ve seen the film however, I can totally see where he’s coming from. Anna Paquin gives a performance that must be seen to be believed. The writing is just one half of what makes Lisa Cohen such a fully realized character. Paquin gives Lisa her own voice, and isn’t afraid to really show the passion Lisa feels in her sense of justice. It’s never showy, but there are moments where Lisa gets into huge verbal arguments that are a thing to behold. The arguments feel real, not just because of the superb writing, but because there is such intensity in the performances, each argument feels like a small war.
Paquin is also pretty much perfect in the film’s quietest moments, able to do what all the greatest actors and actresses are able to do: Convey numerous emotions using only simple facial expressions. Everything about her performance is completely, utterly powerful, and it also helps that she’s surrounded by an amazingly strong supporting cast.
Mark Ruffalo, in what few scenes he’s in, plays the bus driver with an amazing amount of restraint and sensitivity, never for a single second telling the audience that he’s a bad guy. Matt Damon is as likable and charming as he’s always been, but adds another layer of doubt and fragility in a few scenes. And Matthew Broderick, also in a very small role, owns one of the most amusing scenes in the whole film.
But the real players in the supporting ensemble are the actors you probably haven’t seen too often. Kieran Culkin (Who you may remember as Wallace Wells from Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World) is disturbingly charming in his one big scene, in a scene that I wouldn’t want to spoil but depends on his pitch-perfect comedic timing and inflections. Jean Reno is strangely hilarious, in such a unique and offbeat way without overly relying on quirkiness. And the strongest out of all of them is easily J. Smith Cameron, who plays Lisa’s mother, and gives one of the best movie moms I’ve ever seen since Mary McDonnell in Donnie Darko: Strong and supporting, while still being responsible and assertive. She’s not afraid to stand up to her daughter and deal with her flaws, but she also has a hard time handling her own flaws as well, such as the fear of losing her children, who could move in with their separated father if they wanted to.
Each of these characters all have one thing in common: They’re all fully defined. There’s a big reason why this movie is so long despite the fact that the plot isn’t very complicated: It allows each character room to breathe is a real individual, and show every single nuance you could possibly ask for.
The Full Spectrum Of Emotion
Margaret is also really, really funny. I saw the extended cut in a theater and there were some scenes where everyone, including myself, was laughing pretty hysterically. That may sound weird considering the way I just described that horrifying and powerful accident scene, but this is another remarkable feat of the movie: It keeps a consistent tone, despite careening from humor to tragedy.
This is because Margaret is a human story, evoking the complexities of real life. And in real life, we don’t always wallow in grief. Sometimes, to escape that grief, we go to humor. We have a nice dinner date with friends. And the humor doesn’t just come from characters just joking to escape the tragedy. Some of the humor just comes from the characters, period. Especially in the character of Ramon (Jean Reno), the boyfriend of Lisa’s mother. Everything from his mannerisms to his reactions are ridiculous and humorous, but they never take you out of the film. He’s still a real, defined character, despite his quirks.
What Margaret does is look at the human experience and finds the full spectrum of emotions. Much like how Lisa that the world around her is made up of more than just herself and learns to empathize, the film takes a look at every single character and situation and tries to see the most real outcome of their mixture. Lonergan isn’t afraid of keeping to one singular tone or genre just for the sake of consistency, rather he goes with what is closest to real life.
Because of this, many people found the film to be a mess, whether it be tonally, structurally, or otherwise. It’s weird, because while the film does capture all these different emotions and goes through all these different characters, I never found it to be a mess, structurally or tonally. It still keeps its own specific tone: Authenticity. The humor is never sardonic, the drama is never manipulative, the relationships never feel unnatural, etc.
Meanwhile, though the film does go all over the place, it still has its protagonist, Lisa, to provide for an emotional center that reacts to each situation in a real, believable way. Plus, all the characters are so fully realized and what they’re each going through feels so thematically interconnected that it still retains a sense of focus.
So many things go on at once in Margaret, but everything feels like it’s there for a reason. The third word that best describes the film is “Novelistic”, something I’ve seen a lot of critics use. Much like a novel, there are scenes that are useless on a plot level, but have their own meaning that contributes either to the thematics, the characters, the mood, making the world just feel alive, etc.
And like all good novels, you feel like you were just transported on a long, epic journey, even if the scale was decidedly small.
There’s so much more I can say about Margaret, but this article has gone long enough as it is, and it would end up being twice as long if I mentioned every single good thing about it. The point is this: You simply need to see it some time. It’s a long time commitment, sure, but one that is definitely worth it. Do not let this film get ignored, because it deserves its praises as an unsung masterpiece.
In 20 years, maybe this will become mandatory viewing at film schools, and hopefully its reputation will be building over time. It’s thankfully still building up right now thanks to all the critics that have supported it, and hopefully you readers who haven’t seen it yet will follow suit.
Blatant Cross-Promotion in 3…2…: Margaret is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD. The Blu-Ray comes with the Extended Cut, which is only available in DVD form, while the Theatrical Cut is in HD. You can most likely get it through Amazon or Best Buy.