Combustible Celluloid
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With: Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, Mark Ruffalo, Jeannie Berlin, Jean Reno, John Gallagher Jr., Allison Janney, Kieran Culkin, Matt Damon, Matt Bush, Rosemarie DeWitt, Matthew Broderick, Olivia Thirlby, Kenneth Lonergan, Josh Hamilton, Michael Ealy, Krysten Ritter, Sarah Steele, Betsy Aidem
Written by: Kenneth Lonergan
Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan
MPAA Rating: R for strong language, sexuality, some drug use and disturbing images
Running Time: 1986
Date: 09/30/2011

Margaret (2011)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Accidental Purist

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

After Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret appeared on many best-of-decade lists at the tail end of 2019, I decided to give it a try. I checked out the long, 3-hour-and-6-minute extended cut from the library just before lockdown in 2020. My checkout time was extended to several months (apologies to anyone who was waiting to check it out after me), and the DVD sat on my desk until I finally felt guilty enough to watch it. And it was very much worth the effort.

The movie has a long story. It was begun not long after Lonergan's well-received directorial debut You Can Count on Me (2000). Filmed in 2005, it incorporated elements of the George W. Bush administration and the events of 9/11. Lonergan finished the film in a 3-hour cut, but he was contractually obligated to deliver a shorter cut. Several edits went by, including one supervised by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, and there were several lawsuits. Finally, a 150-minute version was released in theaters in 2011, which received some acclaim, but very small box office. The 186-minute version was released on DVD in 2012. Apparently neither version is an official "director's cut," but the longer version is the one that provoked the most passionate critical response.

At first I wondered if the critics were merely rushing to defend a maligned and dismissed film, but Margaret really is that good. Anna Paquin stars, not as Margaret, but as Lisa Cohen, a spoiled Manhattan high school student. While shopping for a cowboy hat, she spots a bus driver wearing one. She chases the bus and flirts with him through the door. While he flirts back, he accidentally runs a red light and hits a woman (Allison Janney) who dies a horrible and painful death in the street.

Over the course of the rest of the movie, Lisa struggles with guilt over her involvement in the accident, as well as her deteriorating relationship with her actor mother (J. Smith-Cameron), and her own budding sexuality; she initiates sex with smooth bad-boy Paul (Kieran Culkin) and tries to seduce her teacher, Mr. Caije (Matt Damon). She eventually approaches the driver, which escalates into a shouting match, so she turns to the dead woman's friend (Jeannie Berlin) and a lawyer (Michael Ealy) to see what can be done. (John Gallagher Jr., Rosemarie DeWitt, Matthew Broderick, Olivia Thirlby, Josh Hamilton, and Lonergan himself also appear, and Krysten Ritter flashes onscreen for a couple of seconds as a salesgirl.) The title refers to a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins that is read in Lisa's class.

The movie isn't really about justice, but mostly about Lisa and how she feels about all this. Her emotions wander back and forth, feeling the guilt, and then trying to push it away. She's allowed to be completely human, both shamefully flawed, and totally relatable. She's neither good, nor bad, but both. The three hours of movie include so many scenes that help shape who she is by shaping the people around her. There are awkward dates between Lisa's mother and a fan of her work (Jean Reno), and arguments in classrooms. Lonergan adds weird, slow-motion interludes that break up the story like chapters. Yet nothing seems random or sloppy. It's about life, but it's meticulous and studied, and it really seems wise enough to have grasped something.

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