The Character Study: Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret (2011)

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At one point in Margaret, a character screams in another character’s face: “We are not supporting characters in the fascinating story of your life!” In a film so densely populated, not just with characters, but with ideas, themes, tones and aesthetic, that one line manages to cut to the heart of everything by being both ironic and appropriate. There might be one character at the centre of it all but in the bigger picture she is merely the pebble tossed into the pond allowing for writer/director Kenneth Lonergan to study the expanding ripples in the fascinating story of her life.

Lonergan’s follow up to You Can Count On Me has one hell of a checkered past. Originally shot in 2005 but stuck in a post-production limbo wrought with lawsuits for six years, the film was quietly released in the last quarter of 2011 to the kind of critical acclaim that usually fades away into hyperbole, but in this case, felt genuinely sincere and passionate. Positive reviews are one thing, but critics actually banded together and started a petition to get the film more exposure for awards season. I remember for a short period of time at the back end of 2011 reading countless articles urging audiences to seek the film out and demanding more marketing effort from distributors and exhibitors. Despite ranking highly on many “End of Year” lists and exceptional critical support, Margaret failed to garner any awards recognition and couldn’t help but become the best film of 2011 almost nobody saw.

To complicate things even further, when the film finally arrived on home video the following year, it was presented in two cuts; the theatrical 165 minute version and an extended 186 minute cut, both of which were fully endorsed by Lonergan himself, with neither being billed as the definitive version. In a nutshell: watching Margaret is fucking hard work. It’s taken me this long, almost five years, to finally tackle it with enough time and distance for it to feel less like a chore and more like a discovery. I decided to go all-in on the longer cut, and it’s with great pleasure that I can report: it was well worth the wait.

Margaret is one of those films that simultaneously feels small and seismic. In more ways than one, it is a film about overlap. At the heart of it all is Lisa (Anna Paquin), a 17 year old student who inadvertently causes a fatal traffic accident by distracting a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo). When questioned by the police, Lisa lies about the details absolving them both of any blame. The film is obsessed with the ramifications of that decision, not just on Lisa’s life, but on all of the characters in her periphery. It is built up from a multitude of faces and voices, both familiar and fresh, as well as a collision of personalities, opinions and emotions. Lonergan isn’t afraid of digression and the film repeatedly splinters off into snapshots of other lives. At one point we catch a moment of one of Lisa’s teachers played by Matthew Broderick. All we see is a shot of Broderick from behind as two students snigger behind his back but it’s all we need to colour his world. Another scene featuring Lisa and a boy she is involved with ( John Gallagher, Jr.) captures them in a cafe and Lonergan fills the soundtrack with the overlapping conversations of all the surrounding tables. The film is full of these little brush strokes and asides which add up to a populated universe that is unconventionally through and definitive. We never forget that we are following just one thread in a world of infinite stories that constantly intersect.

The film boasts a swarming ensemble of actors, ranging from one-scene cameos to extended supporting roles regardless of star status. In the same way the film treats emotion in varying extremes – big moments are downplayed, small moments are dissected – name actors like Ruffalo, Matt Damon or Broderick might only occupy one or two scenes while lesser known faces are given greater emphasis. Yet there’s never a sense that anyone is trying to steal the film from Paquin. As Lisa, she owns the film for its mammoth running time by playing a character who is as unbearable as she is fascinating. Her decisions and thought process can be frustrating and often questionable, but lets not forget: Lisa is a seventeen year old girl. For teenagers, the messiness of being an emotional human being full of flaws and misplaced intent in a world full of contradictions and selfishness can be especially vivid. Experiencing somebody’s death first-hand doesn’t instantly change Lisa the way movies and fiction have taught us. The impact takes a long time to gestate and when it finally emerges, Lisa’s guilt materialises with an unfortunate agenda: she takes it upon herself to ruin Ruffalo’s life.

It’d be easy to label Lisa as a purely selfish character but there’s so much more going on here. From Lonergan’s grand-canvas approach to Paquin’s jaw-droppingly complex performance, Lisa is deeply scrutinised. Yes, her motives come from a selfish place but more than anything Lisa seems driven by a belief that the guilty should be punished. Sadly, in the real world, as complicated and morally grey as it is, this belief is sorely misplaced. Lisa contacts the dead woman’s family and instigates a legal case on the stipulation that Ruffalo’s bus driver be fired and prosecuted. When a large cash settlement is offered instead, to the family’s approval, Lisa goes into meltdown and refuses to accept anything other than merciless retribution.

Her vicious tirade during that scene is one of the moments I keep coming back to. Paquin’s performance is consistently arresting but in this scene it all comes to a boil. Her youthful rebellion and vicious, spiteful hate seem to overflow into a defining moment for her. Lisa, like all of us, sees herself as the main character in her own story, that she is the centre of her universe. She believes that what she says matters, her actions have impact, that her very existence should be meaningful. Throughout the film she realises that this is not necessarily the case and certain things are just not in her control. “This is not an opera!” the dead woman’s best friend shouts at her. It hurts Lisa. Her quest for some kind of perfect narrative in which the good are rewarded and the bad are disciplined takes a form she isn’t prepared for or able to accept. The way the world works just isn’t good enough for her. But she’s also deranged enough to believe that everyone should sympathise with her and bend to her will, that her feelings matter to them as much as they do to her. The fact that by the end of her rant Lisa is in tears while the adults in the room look at her sadly and, from there on, abandon her, says everything we need to know. There is both something endearing and sad about her vendetta. She is as naive as she is selfish. After that scene everyone realises what is going on. This is just one seventeen year old’s way of dealing with their shit.

The backdrop of Margaret is the Upper West Side of Manhattan and the city is as much a character in the film as any of the actors, if not its star. Living where they do, all of these characters – predominantly upper-class, white jewish – have a certain amount of privilege which is important. Lisa’s mother, Joan, is a famed opera singer who enjoys meals in luxurious restaurants and a relatively lavish lifestyle which Lisa has simply inherited. When the dead woman’s family are offered a settlement for their grief, the money means more to them than it ever would for Lisa because money has just never been of concern to her. Lonergan’s portrait of the city in a state of post-9/11 recovery feels especially authentic and visceral. It is romanticised and affectionate, without a doubt, but not falsely presented. His decision to populate the film as he does feels like a reach to include as much of the city’s diverse personality as possible. It is as much a portrait of environment as it is humanity.

At one point a character says  “I love this view” during a rooftop date and the camera pans away to take it in, letting the audience appreciate the view for themselves. Everything drops to silence and the scene doesn’t resume until the camera returns to the characters. It is an indulgent moment but quite startling. So many scenes will begin with busy shots of crowds or bustling streets only to then focus in on its specific characters for the story to continue. Lonergan never lets us forget where and when this film is taking place. In fact, the long post-production process ultimately ended up working in the film’s favour. The end result is a period-piece where everything – from the actors to the locations – genuinely look six years younger.

As far as complicated storytelling goes, Margaret is something of a triumph. In an age where television seems to be stealing the limelight with its multi-year character arcs and ten-hour plus instalments, a film like this goes a long way to remind you just how powerful and rewarding great cinema can be. This is an artistically ambitious and novelistic work so dense with content and character that the experience of watching it becomes a complete immersion. Even at over three hours, I was transfixed and totally engaged. Unlike so many exhausting blockbusters, Margaret is a film that earns its lengthy running time by putting it to good use. The film isn’t perfect, but it carries itself with such purpose and has such clear authorial intent that even the imperfections and indulgences feel correct.

While full to the brim with exceptional acting work, Anna Paquin’s leading performance is gigantic and a big part of why the film had such an effect on me. As I have discussed, the film is many things, but when looked at as an epic character study of Paquin’s Lisa, it has the same breadth and minutia as a definitive autobiography. It feels like literature in motion. I came out of Margaret feeling like I knew Lisa intimately. She has become one of those characters for me, like Travis Bickle, who you may not necessarily enjoy spending time with but one you can’t help but think about and be obsessed by. Lonergan’s study of this girl is mighty and his formal audacity makes a much-needed case for movies being a vital and individual medium. Not only did Margaret exceed my very high expectations, it is a film that has stayed with me every day since seeing it. If I were to write a multi-volume dissection of my moviegoing experiences, Margaret is one of those films that would demand its own chapter. It may very well be one of the best films I’ve ever seen.

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