March 26, 2013

MARGARET Is An Emotional Wrecking Ball

"We are not all supporting characters in the drama of your amazing life!" 
"It's like their entire reason for existing is to prove how loud they can be.  I really don't find that all that interesting." 

Often times the story of a film's production will outshine the film itself.  Titanic was infamous before it ever hit theaters for running so insanely over budget and behind schedule.  Last year's Zero Dark Thirty caught all sorts of flack because a few moronic congressmen claimed that the Obama administration had given screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow access to classified documents.  (They hadn't.)  And this weekend will see the release of G.I. Joe: Retaliation nearly nine months after its original release date.  While the initial story claimed the studio wanted extra time for effects work and 3D conversion, it soon became clear that the film was going into reshoots because Channing Tatum was coming off a monster year at the box office and the producers were regretting the decision to kill his character off in the first ten minutes of the movie.  The more sensational the circumstances of the film's production woes, the harder it is for the actual film to stand on its own merits.

Enter Kenneth Lonergan's intimate and powerful drama Margaret.

I won't lie, part of the reason I was drawn to this movie and wanted it to be one of my first handful of screenings was the now legendary tale of the film's turbulent shooting and post-production.  In fact, for a while it looked as if the movie might never see the light of day.  Put simply, Margaret was shot over three years, which is a marvel unto itself, and then spent the next five years locked up in the editing bay.  Lonergan's deal with Fox Searchlight included final cut of the movie, but it also stipulated that the film had to come in under two and a half hours.  The closest he ever got was three hours.  The studio didn't want to fire him off the picture, as Searchlight had pretty much built its reputation on having strong relationships with auteur directors like Lonergan and Darren Aronofsky.  Instead, the production companies just stopped paying to let Lonergan keep editing, so he went to his friend Matthew Broderick (who has a small part in the film) and got a loan to keep working.  Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella were both producers on the film and they each worked hands on with Lonergan to help shape the final cut of the film, although both passed away before its ultimate release.  That's right, two legendary filmmakers died trying to get this thing finished.  (An oversimplification, I know.)  Finally MARTIN FUCKING SCORSESE stepped in with his longtime editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker and pieced together a sub-three hour cut that got a very limited theatrical release.  It's now available on DVD and Blu, along with Lonergan's own three hour cut.  (This isn't exactly a Richard Donner/Superman II situation, as Lonergan did eventually approve Scorsese's cut for release.)

So yeah, this movie's had some hurdles to clear.

I spent the better part of a decade hearing whispers of Margaret's demise while simultaneously reading stories from the few who had seen it, most claiming the film to be nothing short of a masterpiece.  The various rumors certainly stoked my interest, but the controversial production was not the only reason I was interested.  Lonergan is a flat out incredible screenwriter, a man with a deft mastery of the spoken word who's unafraid to explore the full depths of his character's chaotic inner lives.  "Unflinching" is the word that immediately comes to mind.  Like Sorkin or Mamet, he's a guy who I always show up for.  It also doesn't hurt that he assembled a cast of jaw-dropping talent: Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, Mark Ruffalo, Allison Janney, Matt Damon, Jean Reno, Matthew Broderick, and Kieran Culkin all turn in wonderful performances, while folks like Olivia Thirlby, John Gallagher Jr., Rosemary DeWitt, Michael Ealy, and Krysten Ritter all appear in smaller roles before they went on to achieve greater success.

In my Bullhead article I talked about movies that focus on character over plot and Margaret is another great example.  High school student Lisa Cohen (Paquin) is out looking for a cowboy hat in New York City one afternoon when she spots a bus driver (Ruffalo) wearing just such a chapeau.  She tries to wave him down, running alongside the bus and laughing while the driver watches her through the door.  He's sort of flirting with her and, yeah, she's sort of flirting back and it's all in good fun until the driver unwittingly runs a red light and mows down a pedestrian named Monica (Allison Janney).  Lisa is left cradling the bleeding woman, who's calling out for her daughter also named Lisa until Monica finally dies in the arms of a teenager who is in no way prepared to deal with such a trauma.  When the police investigators inquire about the accident, she's so shaken and nervous that she tells them the traffic light was green, even though she knows otherwise.  She spends the remainder of the film struggling to make sense both of this brutal tragedy and of her own miscarriage of justice.

The bus accident is one of the most dynamic scenes I've ever witnessed on film.  It's shocking, it's violent, it's funny, it's sad, it's a few brief moments Janney creates an character so rich that her subsequent death is absolutely devastating despite having only just met her.  It's easy to see how such a moment would fuel Lisa's emotional turmoil throughout the rest of the film.  It's nothing short of a master class performance from Paquin, who gives an incredibly honest portrayal of the teenage mindset and experience.  She's an exposed nerve, desperate for knowledge and experience and holding absolutely nothing back as reacts to a world that is beginning to make less and less sense to her.  In many ways it's all about that moment when you realize that the adult world doesn't really operate on the rules you thought it did, and "doing the right thing" isn't necessarily as important to society as you were led to believe.  When Lisa tries to come clean about her false testimony, the cops have already closed the case and there are no real charges they can bring against the driver either way.  Lisa therefore inserts herself into the life of Monica's family in order to help them bring a civil suit against the bus company, but that only ends in an out of court settlement and a check to distant relatives.  Lisa wants the bus driver fired, to be held accountable for his actions and to be squarely labeled as at fault for killing a stranger, even if it was an accident.

On the one hand you feel for Lisa because in a way she's right.  A good woman is dead and seemingly no one is being held responsible.  While Lisa intellectually knows that's wrong, she has no idea how to appropriately express her frustration or relate to those around her.  This mindset is mirrored in classroom scenes where Lisa argues with classmates over the events of September 11th, the nature of terrorism and current events in the Middle East.  (Filmed in New York circa 2004, this is a film in which 9/11 still feels like an open wound.)  Her arguments are not necessarily wrong, but she screams and insults her classmate while other students sit with hands raised, wanting to join the conversation and annoyed at Lisa for ignoring the rules and talking over them.  Similarly, Lisa makes Monica's death all about her own distress, unable to actually relate to Monica's partner Emily or her semi-estranged family.  When she tells Emily about the confusion when Monica was asking about her nominally identical daughter, Lisa says that in that moment she felt like she really was Monica's Lisa.  This declaration only serves to anger Emily, but rather than empathize and/or apologize, Lisa turns indignant and calls Emily "strident."  It perfectly sums up the kind of self-centered, self-righteous perspective that typifies so many teenagers, determined to prove their own worth and that above all THEY UNDERSTAND, even if nothing could be further from the truth.

That's why I chose the above quotes, as they perfectly sum up Lisa's state of being.  While she probably doesn't realize it (and wouldn't admit it even if she did), she treats everyone around her as a means to her own emotional exploration, and is determined to make that exploration as loud as humanly possible.  This attitude also drives Lisa's relationship with her mother, a divorced actress who's starting a potentially career-changing stage show while entering into a new relationship for the first time in ages.  But when she tries connect to her daughter, Lisa's response is to tell her that she doesn't care because nothing in her mother's life is really important.  Lisa's friend Darren is clearly in love with her, but when she decides to start having sex she completely disregards him in favor of some incredibly bad decisions, the latter of which devolves into Hannah Horvath-ian levels of cringe-worthy behavior on her part.  Each individual component can be hard to watch, but they all come together to form an incredible tapestry of emotional catharsis.

There's so much more to Margaret.  I could write another full length piece just on Lisa's relationship with her family (Lonergan plays her father, appearing via long distance phone calls from California) or her interactions with her classmates and teachers.  Matthew Broderick has a few fantastic scenes, (particularly the King Lear scene), as does a babyfaced Matt Damon.  I can't wait to get a hold of Lonergan's longer version, as I'm curious to see how much of the editing style carries over to both cuts.  Some scenes are protracted arguments, while others jump-cut mid conversation or give us only brief moments surrounded by lingering shots of New York intersections or skylines.

Margaret is a film of epic nuance, a story that is both sprawling and intimate and will likely offer fresh revelations at least the next five times I watch it.  Even if Lonergan's script wasn't as phenomenal as it is, the performances alone are reason enough to check this one out.  It's certainly an investment of both your time and your emotions, but in the end each will yield a remarkable profit, and you'll be the richer for it.

Title: Margaret
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, Mark Ruffalo, Allison Janney, Matt Damon, Jean Reno, Kieran Culkin
Year Of Release: 2011
Viewing Method: HBO

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