On the most simplistic level, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret is like Randy Newman's great, disturbing song "I Want You To Hurt Like I Do" writ large. The movie's main character, a selectively precocious teen named Lisa who lives at a certain level of New York City privilege that nonetheless seems perpetually poised on the brink of toppling, doggedly pursues an idea of justice that's pretty transparently a hardly un-malicious attempt at expiating, or maybe virally spreading, her own guilt. Her selfish pursuit of a trifle, it seems to her, precipitated a grisly, fatal bus accident in her Upper West Side neighborhood. Having lied in her initial statement to cops, her nagging conscience, not to mention her roiling, emerging sense of self, compels her to try to put things right, as she sees it, and Lisa pursues this aim with what might be called a vengeance, throwing several lives besides her own into more than everyday tumult.
One might call this a loose, baggy monster of a film; the cut currently showing in theaters is a hair under two-and-a-half hours long, so clearly the simplistic reading just won't do. And in fact Margaret is "about" a number of other things, including that peculiar formulation called "post-9/11 New York," the porous border between emotions as we feel them and emotions as we portray them (much is made of the fact that Lisa's beleaguered single mom is a reasonably succesful actress with both a new play and a new beau on her plate), the way daily lives can still proceed in a "normal" fashion despite the extent of moral/behavioral complication/trauma we (perhaps) arbitrarily bring to bear on them, and more. It's about fantasy projections of heroism, what it means to be "good" rather than good. (What it's not about, I don't think, is "the trolley problem," which some beardo tried to expain to some other guy with a waxed moustache as they walked out of the afternoon Manhattan screening I attended yesterday. Oy.) It is also rather relentlessly high-minded; as Lisa goes to a pretty advanced private school and her mom works in "the arts," writer/director Kenneth Lonergan takes the opportunities this affords him to weave multiple, meaningful cultural allusions into the narrative; a pertinent Gloucester-observation from King Lear is discussed at length, and the film's title doesn't refer to an actual character in the film but to the person addressed in Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "Spring and Fall," a not-too-distant relation to Donne's "Meditation 17;" and opera figures prominently in a couple of scenes, to the point that one might become confused as to whether the film is a Flaubertian treatment of Jamesean themes after having believed it was vice-versa.
Does it all work? Not entirely. There's a bit of awkwardness to the articulation of the prevailing consciousness, or self-consciousness, at times. I really didn't need the bus driver to be quite so lumpen, or quite so much from a Bay Ridge that is a much less compelling product of Lonergan's imagination than his Upper West Side is. Poor Jean Reno is almost laughably miscast.The swing-for-the-fences approach, when it becomes obvious, sometimes leads to near-disaster. Indeed, at the film's finale, Lonergan seems to be lurching toward a cornball universalist Sweeping Gesture, and he fortunately regrounds things back in the specific for the final shots. But on the whole, and given a few hours to let it sink in, I'm thoroughly impressed. As many of you migh tbe aware, Margaret has a tangled and unpleasant post-production history. It was shot over five years ago and spent a considerable amount of time in editing rooms, and in civil courts, before receiving its current limited release. Several of its lead actors, most prominently Matt Damon and the very great Anna Paquin, look almost comically younger than they do today; indeed, on the evil Twitter machine I wisecracked that Fox Searchlight might want to market the film as being about a time-travel device that puts movie stars in touch with their younger, fresher selves. (Also, hey, look, there's young[er] Olivia Thirlby!) Armed with such information, critics will of course run with it, and Margaret has taken some brickbats for its ostensible lack of focus and "punishing" running time. I dunno; even though there were times I thought it wasn't quite making it, I was sufficiently drawn into its world that in retrospect I could have more than stood it being quite a bit longer. In terms of ambition, and, yes, actual scope—the last thing this is is a 90-minute movie stretched out to some arbitrary epic—this is a huge leap for Lonergan, a playwright whose film debut was the similarly thoughtful but somewhat "smaller" 2000 You Can Count On Me. It's kind of comparable to the jump writer/director Jeff Nichols made from Shotgun Stories to Take Shelter, I suppose, but what came to my mind was the notion that Eric Rohmer had followed My Night At Maud's with something of mid-period Rivette duration, or maybe his own gloss on something along the lines of Eustache's The Mother and the Whore. That sounds a little out there, I know, but it might make sense to you if you see the film, which, as Joe Pesci said in Raging Bull, you definitely should do. And yes, I very much hope that Lonergan gets to make more films. Long ones, too.