Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
The title comes from the poem “Spring and Fall” by Gerard Manley Hopkins:
I’m going to have a hard time discussing everything in this movie. I love Margaret, and immediately after watching it, my impulse was to call it one of the greatest movies of this century.
But I’m not even sure why, or what that means. I think I love this film because it feels important, but sometimes such self-importance will rub people the wrong way. It feels important to me, though, in an understated way. It’s a story about misplaced anger and post-9/11 America, all wrapped up in one girl, Lisa (Anna Paquin), and her struggles to deal with a traumatic and fatal bus accident.
Lonergan’s wandering script never explicitly compares Lisa’s state of mind to anything larger than itself, and if he did, the effect would not be so lasting. Margaret is poetic. It’s beautiful, tragic and grounded. It’s what any great piece of art should be, at least in my mind. It’s a specific story that becomes more universal because of those specifics.
There are a few scenes in which the characters discuss the current world political climate and reactions to the September 11th attacks, and in these moments the story might waver a little. But then we’re back with Lisa and her suffering, her ego, her misplaced anger and her anguish, and that’s when the story is at its best.
Margaret is an operatic epic, and you can continuously peel back layers of the film without stripping away everything there it to be analyzed. Maybe I’ll start by just explaining some of what happens:
Lisa is a teenager living in Manhattan with her divorced mother, a semi-successful theatre actor. One day she distracts a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) who runs a red light and kills a pedestrian. Lisa falsifies her police report, claiming the light was green so as to protect the driver. She does this partially to assuage her own guilt and role in the fatal accident. Lisa cradles this woman in her dying moments. Then Lisa encourages a classmate to take her virginity. Then she struggles to repair the damaged relationship with a boy who’s in love with her. Then she visits the driver, still grief-stricken, and when he reacts with anger towards her visit, she decides that he needs to be taken down. Lisa begins to work with Emily, a friend of the deceased, and they organize a lawsuit to take money away from the Bus company (I think?) as well as to have the driver fired. Other people are pulled into this case, with a handsome payout to the deceased’s distant cousin, but the driver will not be fired, which pisses off Lisa who remains adamant that he needs to be fired and brought to justice. While this is going on, Lisa gets into an occasional argument with a classmate about Al-Quaeda, oh and she seduces her math teacher (Matt Damon), eventually sleeping with him. When Lisa tells her mother that she’s pregnant, she explains that she couldn’t possibly know who exactly the father is. She gets an abortion. After Lisa learns that, despite her protestations, the bus driver will not be fired, she loses her cool, and the movie ends with her and her mother crying silently together at an opera, something her mother has only started to do because of a brief romance with a fan of the opera (Ramon) who dies suddenly and whose son, at his service, tells Lisa’s mom that he had planned to marry her.
Whew, okay, so that’s Margaret in a nutshell. Stylistically, it’s like the beginning and end of Woody Allen’s Manhattan, with the combination of booming, operatic score and long shots of New York. It’s a story that’s very much about New York as much as anything else.
Lisa’s reaction to the bus incident mirrors our nation’s response to the September 11th attacks. Her confusion, anger, outbursts and sullenness could all be pointed to as a way of coping with a terrible tragedy. She didn’t just witness it, though, she also feels guilty for her role in it.
I have a feeling that some people adore this movie (like me) and some hate it. The filmmakers probably had a good sense of that too. Originally shot in 2005, the film wasn’t released for 6 years. There were multiple edits (currently two versions that I know of), and there were even some lawsuits thrown around. It’s the product of something like a messy divorce, and the nature of the film’s eventual release feels like the character of Lisa herself.
There’s nothing easy about this movie. It’s hard to watch but beautiful all the same. It’s about a beautiful mess, but the product itself is anything but messy. It’s controlled, stylish and cinematic. At times it feels like a handful of films smushed together, and I could understand that complaint. But for me, the mess is part of the appeal.
These characters are all over the place. They’re combinations of saintly and ugly, and the film insists on showing us the gray area only because we assume there must be something between the black and white. Characters are at their bests and worsts, never anywhere in the middle.
I’m sure that the shorter cut of this movie does away with most of Lisa’s self-discovery in act 1. This long sequence has nothing to do with the plot put in motion by the bus accident but it has everything to do with Lisa’s struggle with that event. By understanding Lisa’s pain, we can better understand her subsequent anger which dominates the second half of the film.
While we get to know Lisa intimately, we don’t know quite so much about other characters in the film. Lisa’s mother, Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), struggles to raise her temperamental daughter, in combination with the mounting pressure of a successful play and a new romance. Later the film spends more and more time with that romance, between Joan and Ramon (Jean Reno), and though these moments have nothing to do with the A plot of the movie, they are oddly captivating, and I want to talk about them.
Ramon is a foreigner who takes a quick, even creepy, liking to Joan. We’re meant to be as apprehensive as she is towards his unabashed and unreciprocated affection for her. He sees her, likely, as he wants to see her, and in turn we see him as barely above a one note joke about chivalry gone wrong. But as Joan opens up to Ramon, he opens up to her and to us. He’s a confident, quiet man, and it soon becomes apparent that all of our preconceived notions about him aren’t fitting. Like Joan, we have judged the man before getting to know him. While he’s not perfect, he becomes a much more three-dimensional man before his sudden death.
At the memorial service, Ramon’s previously unseen son tells Joan how much he loved her and hoped to marry her. Joan’s and Lisa’s reactions to this are a mix of bewilderment and amusement. Neither of them had any idea how he felt, and the point of his character seems to be a reminder that you can never really know someone.
The suddenness and quietness of Ramon’s death has the effect of making the moment almost forgettable and quite profound. In between two shots, one cut, we find out he’s dead and suddenly we’re at the funeral. There is no sentimentality bathing the moment, just a fairly objective perspective of death.
In a similar cut, two cuts and three shots, we find out that Lisa is pregnant and that she gets an abortion. The quickness of the dilemma and the quickness of the subsequent plan of action is stunning. The film takes so much time to tell its story and depict Lisa’s anguish, but it covers what would normally be two giant plot points in less than about thirty seconds.
And I don’t know what the idea behind this was, though it feels like a message about… well I don’t know. You can be so preoccupied with something and let other things pass right through. Lisa is obsessed with this traumatic bus accident and her twisted idea of revenge, and as life passes around her, we get the sense that she is relatively unaffected simply because of the decision not to give too much time to these moments.
Maybe there’s something here about the human spirit and the ability to overcome any kind of tragedy. Or maybe it’s meant to underscore the gap between Lisa’s indifference to her own life and her obsession with ruining another’s.
Margaret is a glorious mess that I feel like I could talk about for hours. It’s one of those films that requires a rewatch to even attempt to understand all that’s being discussed. It’s also beautifully shot, directed and well-acted. Allison Janney leaves a huge emotional impact behind in her one scene as Monica, the woman run over by the bus who is forgotten as the story takes on a momentum of its own.