By Simon Miraudo
October 16, 2012
Before being granted a theatrical release in Australia, Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret screened on international Qantas flights; a comically fitting yet wildly unfair outlet to complement the feature's pitiful roll-out in a handful of American cinemas (where it grossed a meagre $46,000). If you wanted to see this troubled, acclaimed, mishandled movie, you had to go to New York, Los Angeles, or fly 40,000 feet above the Earth. Talk about a limited release.
That’s where I saw it, mere days after publishing my Top 10 Films of 2011 list. On December 25th, with a seventeen-hour flight ahead of me, the 150-minute Margaret seemed like a valid viewing option. It proceeded to occupy my mind for the entirety of my holiday abroad. It was the last film I saw of that year, and, as we reach the tail end of 2012, it maintains its position as my favourite film of this year. It arrives on DVD thirty minutes longer, and with a second viewing under my belt, I now wonder if Margaret is not the best film I’ve seen in my time writing for Quickflix. Four years and 500 reviews may only be a splash in the cinematic waters, but its effect on me has been profound. That may sound like an exaggeration, so allow me to quote protagonist Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin): "If I happen to express myself a little hyperbolically, that's just the way I talk. I can't help it if my mother's an actress."
Much ink has been spilled over Margaret's complicated birthing. Shot in 2005, writer-director Lonergan tinkered with the final product for a number of years, failing to meet Fox Searchlight’s demands for a two-and-a-half hour feature. Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker came in to assist, and co-star Matthew Broderick reportedly pitched in a million of his own dollars to fund the ongoing process, all to no avail. Eventually Lonergan was locked out of the editing suite, tied up in a series of lawsuits between the studio and the producers. Seven years later, a compromise was spat into cinemas without much of an afterthought, and quickly wiped away.
One grass-roots Twitter campaign later, Margaret found a small, passionate audience, leading to its eventual release down under. We can proudly lay claim to being responsible for more than $320,000 of box office receipts; almost seven times the total U.S. gross. Thanks to the critical groundswell, the three-hour cut that Scorsese once hailed "a masterpiece" is released alongside the theatrical version on DVD. Are the new parts essential? No. I bestowed the earlier edition with five stars, celebrating it as “complete” despite the clear incisions that had been made in the third act. That said, these added elements are enhancements. I suppose it makes a perfect picture even more perfect. That's kind of how Nigel Tufnell sounded when he described the all-black cover of Spinal Tap's album Smell the Glove: "It's like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black."
Anna Paquin gives a stunning performance as the indignant, argumentative New York teenager Lisa Cohen. When she distracts a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) and causes a fatal traffic accident, she recoils into distractions like sex, drugs, and class debates, before deciding that the driver needs to pay for his mistake. She appeals to Emily (Jeannie Berlin), the brassy best friend of the victim, Monica Patterson (Allison Janney), and together they consider a wrongful death suit against the Metropolitan Transport Authority. But this is just another diversion to keep Lisa's shrieking conscience from admitting blame for the tragedy, and from truly dealing with the grief (including that of her own quickly shed innocence). As all New Yorkers learnt in the days following September 11, 2001, that's a band-aid that just won't stick. Margaret seeks to reopen wounds that were barely healed in the first place.
I considered in my previous review that Lisa was a stand-in for America at large, particularly in the years immediately following the World Trade Center attacks: righteous, defensive, desperately searching for someone to blame other than herself, and deeply, deeply hurting. On second viewing, she felt much more like a human being, and not just an allegory. I don’t know if that’s the effect of the extra footage, or just the result of further reflection. Nonetheless, Margaret now played like a coming-of-age story in reverse. She doesn’t grow so much as she disintegrates, and only when there’s nothing left has she become the adult she always - and prematurely - considered herself to be. What also seemed richer this time around was Lisa's relationship with her stage-actress mother, Joan (J. Smith Cameron). To discuss that, we have to get into the new stuff. Consider this your spoiler warning.
There are two notable additions in the early acts; the first is an awkward conclusion to Lisa's "appointment" with the quite literally too-cool-for-school Paul (Kieran Culkin). She asks him to take away her virginity, and their clumsy banter and eventual tryst is excruciatingly pored over. The sequence is made even longer here, with her informing him after the fact that she's kinda mad that he didn't wear protection. His slick veneer is gone and he seems genuinely embarrassed and heart-felt. She wants him out, and we watch him get dressed for what seems like an eternity. It makes her barely-glimpsed affair with her teacher, Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon), appear even brisker by comparison. I previously wrote that the contrast made her decision making seem "more desperate, random, disastrous." Now, even more so. We are gifted another bonus sequence in which Lisa's drama teacher orchestrates group therapy between his increasingly divided students. We get to see Paul back behind the mask, chilling out with his girlfriend and not giving a damn. Meanwhile, Lisa's poor, rebuffed, not-so-secret admirer Darren (John Gallagher Jr.) sits cross-legged away from the group. The sequences colour in the gaps of Lisa's school life, as well as her teenage relationships.
In the previous edit, Lisa eventually admits culpability of Monica's death in a screeching outburst to Emily and their lawyer, before frantically running back to school to tell Mr. Aaron that she has had an abortion. We don't know if she's serious or not. Perhaps she's just screwing with the guy because she is exhausted, and confused, and cruel, and wants to reassert to herself that she still holds the power in at least one situation. Lonergan's extended cut shows Lisa taking a pregnancy test, informing her mother of the result, and the two of them visiting an abortion clinic. Now her interaction with Mr. Aaron feels more tragic; as if she's looking for someone else to carry some of the guilt that she's been living with for the past few weeks. The pregnancy test sequence also follows a tentative truce between the increasingly fractured Lisa and Joan, and contributes to and explains the extreme catharsis of their weepy embrace during the opera in the closing moments. I was concerned that the specific admission of Lisa's abortion would lessen the impact of her revelation to the befuddled teacher. Somehow, it's even more devastating. And the finale, more beautiful.
One of the most significant alterations is the sound-mix. The audio levels of surrounding New Yorkers (conversing in apartment buildings, on the street, in restaurants) have been mixed so high they occasionally drown out the speech of Lisa herself, stressing the point that comes later when Emily chastises her by saying, “we are not all supporting characters to the drama of your amazing life.” The score has been changed too; much of it ditched in favour of traditional classical pieces, which add to the operatic crescendo of the last hour. These musical stings also recall the theatricality of Greek tragedy, with our hero’s fatal flaw leading to a gargantuan fall. Again, this no longer feels like it's happening to a walking metaphor. It’s all happening to a teenage girl; one we may not like as a person, but one we recognise and feel for.
Though we’re seeing it in 2012, it can’t be denied that this is a 2005 movie. It’s a Bush-era movie (that the impetus for the action is a cowboy hat can’t be a coincidence). It’s a post-9/11 movie (and a raw one at that). Does that mean it should be exempt from our end of 2012 lists? No. Margaret is a masterpiece in any year.
Margaret: Extended Cut arrives on DVD October 24, 2012.