Warning: The following analysis/review/love letter contains spoilers for Margaret. Do see the film before reading.
Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret is a film so true to human nature that it’s both deeply tragic and euphorically uplifting at the same time. I saw the theatrical cut of Margaret in December of last year, by which time the film’s scarred production history — in addition to Fox Searchlight’s understandably swift handling of the theatrical distribution — had reduced the amount of possible conversation surrounding the film. But there were, amidst all the battered rumors, a couple of choice critics who went out of their way to champion Margaret, and so I wasn’t terribly shocked when the film resonated enough with me to land a spot on my Top 10 of 2011.
As the year’s end neared, many other writers did the same thing, and a film that left theaters with hardly a whimper was steadily gaining a healthy critical traction. Fox Searchlight did their final-hour duty by sending out screeners to Academy members, but the film garnered nothing — not for Lonergan’s beautifully messy original screenplay, not for Anna Paquin’s powerhouse performance (though she was recognized by the Chicago Film Critics Association and the London Film Critics Circle), and not for two starkly different, but equally accomplished, supporting turns from J. Smith-Cameron and Jeannie Berlin.
And so the burst of recognition subdued, and the opportunity for people to find the film and voice their opinion of it became less and less of-the-moment. But 2012′s July has seen a resurgence, with Margaret receiving home-video treatment that includes not only the theatrical version, which runs 150 minutes, but a newly tweaked “extended cut,” which runs a massive, though similarly paced, 186 minutes. And if the early word is to be trusted, Margaret is a film that will be treated well by time — the more space this ambitious treasure is given, the better.
Making qualitative statements about which version is greater interests me less than discussing their differences, and the implications that they have. Because in the end, both versions are worth cherishing, and they both breathe with the same juxtaposition of a teenage girl’s (Paquin) specific moral conundrum and a city’s overarching timesheet. The world doesn’t revolve around Paquin’s Lisa Cohen, but she thinks it does, and that’s the point — the movie both embraces and laughs at the conviction with which she investigates Mark Ruffalo’s running-over of Allison Janney from behind the wheel of an MTA bus.
But though that may represent the film’s plot current, Lonergan’s vision is too hungry to reduce itself to one focus. Instead, we get compounding scenes of Lisa’s dueling love interests, from Matt Damon’s comforting geometry teacher to Kieran Culkin’s too-cool-for-school hipster to John Gallagher Jr.’s kind-hearted Darren, the last of which, in many ways, is a mirror for the significant other (Jean Reno) of Lisa’s mother, Joan (Smith-Cameron).
In fact, if you compare the relationship tendencies of Lisa and Joan, you basically end up distilling the movie’s entire agenda. When Darren asks Lisa out in one of the film’s first scenes, she responds with hesitancy — not because she doesn’t like (or even love) Darren, but because she’s a maniac of tobacco-infused high-school energy, and she’s waiting for the world to put Prince Charming in her lap before she’s willing to settle for Darren. But when Reno’s Ramon puts the moves on Joan, she gives in, because she hasn’t been on a serious date in a year or two, and she’s not young enough anymore to believe there will be another Jean Reno to greet her after tomorrow night’s performance.
And that same realization informs almost every other decision in the movie — particularly in the 186-minute version, which is simply staggering in its commitment to this idea. One of the new scenes, for example, is an afternoon get-together between Lisa and Darren, and while they’re in the middle of their extremely emotional discussion — she’s telling him why she doesn’t want to date him — Lonergan bleeds the chatter of the restaurant’s other patrons into the sound mix. Lisa is telling this genuinely nice kid why she (regrettably?) doesn’t have romantic feelings for him, and we can barely hear her.
This happens again, many times, as in a sidewalk conversation between Lisa and Emily (Berlin), the closest friend of Janney’s deceased grocery-shopper. As they walk across the New York City pavement, their faces are obstructed by those of the people around them, as are the words they’re saying. Lonergan’s relentlessness here pays off — instead of merely recognizing what he’s doing, we feel it burn inside our skin. We can’t fully make out what Emily’s saying to Lisa, or vice versa, and that’s frustrating, because we know that it means the universe will always follow its own schedule, no matter how many people die in agony because of a careless driving accident or how many chain-smoking teenage girls get pregnant and then have to tell their mother that they’re not even sure who the father is. (That last bit is a big addition to the longer version.)
The juxtaposition is furthered by Ryszard Lenczewski’s camera, which has more time to go wild in the extended cut. Drawn-out dialogues are chopped in half by shots that roam across the city skyline — following airplanes, birds, helicopters — and brazenly amplify the film’s post-9/11 concerns, which are, as in the theatrical cut, also represented in the scenes of heated classroom debate, encompassed by both political arguments and more artistic ones. (The film’s title comes from a poem read by Matthew Broderick’s literature teacher.)
Along with the enhanced platform of Lenczewski’s lensing, the most glaring stylistic difference is in the music, which was mostly original in the first version (composed by Nico Muhly) and is mostly classical in the second one. The first time through, I fell for Muhly’s haunting heartbeat indefinitely, though, peculiarly, at no point was I necessarily missing it during the extended cut. The classical cues help us recognize how immense the film’s scope is, and, more dangerously, how likely it is that what’s playing in Lisa’s head, as Berlin suggests in a verbal thrashing, is just as operatic and grandiose.
Fittingly, then, the film finds its conclusion in a crowded operahouse, as Lisa and Joan, crying in each other’s arms, mend their conflicts and recognize how reliant they are on the comfort of one another. Surrounded by people and music and chandeliers, they come to an understanding of their innermost feelings, as well as those (or the lack thereof) of the world at large. In the moment that Lisa breaks down and releases her fierce intent to battle the world, she falls into her mother’s lap — a place of love, protection, and security, but also, somewhat distressingly, of resignation.