Take a Load Off, by Scott Nye
The story of Margaret’s long, arduous journey through post-production hell has been well-documented on auteurist-minded blogs like The Playlist ever since shooting wrapped at the end of 2005, but for those who are unaware, the basics are pretty simple – it’s all about the running time. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan had a three-hour cut he wouldn’t let go of despite a contractual obligation to bring the film in under two-and-a-half. Multiple court cases resulted, and some other financial concerns got in the way, but that’s the part that affects us as moviegoers. I recap this bit of behind-the-scenes trivia largely because Margaret, when viewed as a product of its time, is a breathtaking, urgent piece of early-21st-century melodrama. An exploration of the final stage of adolescence, Margaret rips open an ugly emotional reflex we don’t usually question – positioning ourselves as noble crusaders or innocent bystanders, even if it means inventing villains to do so.
Anna Paquin plays Lisa Cohen, the privileged daughter of a Broadway actress and a Hollywood hotshot (her father’s exact profession is never stated, but it reads like he’s a director), and one of the most fully-realized female characters to hit the screen this year. Lisa is 17 (an admitted stretch for Paquin, 23 at the time, but that’s a pretty minor issue), a good student, but like a lot of people at 17, is both too smart and too confident for her own good. Chiefly, she’s a reactionary, ready to fly off the handle at the slightest offense or dissenting opinion. This is one thing when she’s involved in a class discussion or conversing with her mother, but after witnessing a horrific traffic accident, she’s not quite mature enough to deal with the fallout – both what the incident has brought to her and, even more meaningfully, what she brings to it.
Early in the film, Lisa and her classmates discuss the fallout in the United States following 9/11 – whether our treatment of those overseas was any better or righteous than the force they brought to bear on us, that sort of thing. Lisa stridently defends America’s actions, shutting out any room for debate by the volume and tone of her voice, and I don’t think I’m going too far in saying that this scene gives a certain reading to Lisa’s reaction to the accident. She grieves, wallows in malaise, then seeks some sort of understanding, eventually seeking a villain and taking on other people’s grief as a call to action, before becoming caught up in, yes, the bureaucracy of finding justice, and confronting the difficulties that come from you being the one who defines what that means. It’s not a perfect 9/11 allegory the way, say, The Dark Knight is, but Lisa’s search for a villain, any villain following a tragedy she’s incapable of understanding is not without precedent. For those put off by such themes, let me assure you, the film is also a good deal more complex and universal than that.
It might be an understatement even to say the emotional pitch of the film is set very high. There is a lot of yelling and screaming and thrashing and crying and all that very actorly stuff, but this is (or can be anyway) the stuff of honest melodrama, and I think it’s shortsighted to criticize a film for being melodramatic and leave it at that. Melodrama, when done right, can be an acute, effective, and legitimate way to outwardly express a lot of inward turmoil that we too often turn away from in life and rarely see at the movies. In this case, Longergran is exploring the territory of taking on someone else’s tragedy as your own, and how messy processing that grief can be. Lisa befriends a woman who lost her closest friend in the accident, and almost immediately takes ownership of her emotional terrain, less to help that woman through it or even process her own emotions than in an effort to legitimize a reaction that she’s not mature enough to realize is perfectly legitimate on its own.
I’m dancing around discussing the plot even further, but suffice to say that Lisa is far from justified in the actions she takes or the results she seeks. Anna Paquin gives the finest performance I’ve seen all year by an actor of either gender. Her Lisa is a tangled mess of emotional responses, full of contradictions and untapped complexities. She’s constantly defensive, insulted by everything, and unable to see herself as anything other than the absolute right, yet Paquin shows that she’s quite often very conscious in just how she’s acting a certain role (the ungrateful daughter, the sex bomb, the mourner). It’s the sort of stubborn, emotionally-driven behavior we all specialize in during our teenage years, in which we charge forward in any situation even as we know we’re in the wrong.
A basic description of her actions and attitude makes it seem impossible to come away with anything but contempt for Lisa, but Paquin and Lonergan endear in us tremendous sympathy, even while we (I, anyway) fervently disagree with nearly everything she says or does, and generally think she gets what’s coming to her whenever someone pushes back. Lisa is imbued with incredible confidence in all the wrong directions, and Paquin similarly pushes forward without hesitation, opening herself up to being the bad guy at every turn while convincing herself she’s the hero. Her every reaction is an ugly mess that is nonetheless unbelievably honest, legitimizing the emotional fallout we all experience while condemning the resulting actions. It takes tremendous courage to write something like this, and complete abandon to perform it as well as Paquin does.
Any time you know a film has had its running time severely trimmed, it’s hard to avoid the game of “what do you think they cut out?” Even so, some scenes end a little too abruptly, and it’s not hard to tell why Lonergan wanted that extra half-hour. But he also could have cut down some stuff in the writing process – he’s too often approaching his material as a sprawling novel, following a rather minor character on a solo journey for a moment, as if to say “but I wonder what it’s really like to be this guy?” before suddenly realizing he hasn’t nearly the time to answer that question. It’s an understandable impulse, but not always dramatically or thematically relevant when too many important scenes feel so chopped.
Yet I wouldn’t have traded a second – each minute counts because I found myself loving the film so much more as it progressed. What started out as a pretty stock, real-by-way-of-method New York movie slowly began turning the vice, squeezing the world of film down and intensifying the pressure on every scene, no matter how innocuous. It is a considerable achievement on the page that Lonergan has brought expertly to life, and his formal accomplishments as both a writer and director are considerable. The structure is so ingeniously wrought – dozens of scenes could have gone anywhere in the film, but they seemed so perfectly suited to their assigned moment – and so beautifully executed; it’s the perfect marriage between content (which was already tearing us up) and form.
The dialogue is perhaps a little heightened and stage-y, and Paquin’s discomfort with some more complex dialogue is evident, but it also lends her character a bit of awkwardness that is very endearing. I suspect too many viewers will not give high schoolers their due regarding what they talk about and the way they do. I graduated high school in 2005, and many of the classroom discussions in Margaret bear a striking resemblance to those in which I took part, not always in terms of topic (though discussing American international policy following 9/11 was unavoidable anywhere), but certainly tone and tenor. Lisa and her classmates have strong opinions that run the gamut from total stabs in the dark to salient observations to strident, misguided attempts to gain the upper hand. They’re thoughtful and questioning, but not always open to the answers.
Lonergan never takes a break from his characters – even exposition scenes turn into an opportunity to reveal and explore the people involved – and he doesn’t let them off the hook. Lonergan’s setting for his climax is an easy one for a big emotional release, but it’s only because he kept the pitch so heightened up to that point that he’s able to pull it off, and make it not just the most cathartically satisfying conclusion to any film this year, but a real, legitimate one. It’s a dialogue-free exchange between two characters who we’ve seen battle it out verbally while saying nothing of any value, and it took the dramatic demands of total silence for them to lay everything out. After nearly 150 minutes of ever-escalating melodrama, this conclusion completely floored me, leaving me with a film that I couldn’t stop thinking about, but without the emotional fortitude to stand another minute. I don’t use the word masterpiece easily, and I won’t use it here, but Margaret buried inside me in a way only the great works tend to do.