Kenneth Lonergan’s new film, Margaret, finally released six years after it was shot, now seems destined to become part of film history as one of the more stunning examples of a filmmaker’s sophomore slump.
Lonergan’s film debut, You Can Count on Me, released in 2000, was a critics’ darling that earned two Academy Awards, for best actress and best screenplay. The film, starring Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo as incompatible siblings, was fine-tuned, intimate and modest. In contrast, Margaret is discordant, sprawling (two and a half hours) and disastrously ambitious.
As well, because of the long delays caused by lawsuits and editing problems, the film now arrives in theatres as a period piece rather than a contemporary drama. With its themes of grief and atonement, this story about a teen-aged girl coping with the aftermath of a fatal traffic accident is unmistakably a product of the immediate post-9/11 zeitgeist.
Anna Paquin (23 when the film was shot) plays Lisa Cohen, a self-absorbed, 17-year-old private-school girl who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with her mother and younger brother. We first meet Lisa as she’s flirting with her math teacher (a boyish-looking Matt Damon), who has caught her cheating on a test. After school, she distracts a city bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), which causes him to go through a light and run over a woman pedestrian with his vehicle. The woman (Alison Janney) dies with wrenching slowness, as Lisa holds her hand.
Initially, Margaret promises to be one of those grief studies, like Amores Perros or The Sweet Hereafter, that follows the ripple effect of a violent event. The title refers not to any character in the film but to a poem read in Lisa’s English class, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Spring and Fall: To a Young Girl, in which a young girl weeps for the trees losing their leaves. The poet sees her grief as her incipient recognition of mortality and original sin: “It is the blight man was born for/It is Margaret you mourn for.”
At first, Lisa’s traumatizing experience takes the usual forms of teen misbehaviour. She quarrels with her actress mother (J. Smith-Cameron), a neurotic woman absorbed with her new play and suave Latin American boyfriend (Jean Reno). In class, she gets involved in yelling matches about the Middle East, Israel and 9/11. On an impulse, she decides to lose her virginity to the school’s bad boy (Kieran Culkin), then gets high at a school party. Finally, Lisa decides to try to make things better. She seeks out the dead woman’s acerbic friend Kelly (Jeannie Berlin), and visits the bus driver, who angrily rejects her insistence that he acknowledge the truth about what happened.
Lonergan’s would-be Manhattan elegy is reminiscent of a Woody Allen movie, where everyone sounds hyper-literate but maddeningly lacking in insight, although the bristly, eccentric performances help distract from the rambling, digressive structure. In the film’s last hour, things truly fall apart: more rancorous arguments, empty shots of Manhattan skyscrapers, and fresh go-nowhere subplots. With no real credible motivation, Lisa decides to go on a crusade to punish the bus driver for his negligence. The film shifts from a psychological study to a pedantic legal drama, bogged down with lawyers’ speeches about personal-injury law.
There’s a certain ironic symmetry here as lawsuits, both inside and outside of the movie, prove Margaret’s undoing. Perhaps we’ll have to wait even longer for the DVD release to provide the forensic material to explain this troubling wreck of a film: What happened? Where did it go so wrong?
- Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan
- Starring Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron and Matt Damon
- Classification: 14A