He’s only made two movies as writer-director, but on the evidence of Margaret and You Can Count on Me, Kenneth Lonergan has distinguished himself by exhibiting the rarest of gifts: the ability to write characters whose mouths are connected to their brains. Even if they seem (or simply are) callous, fickle, or stupid, their words invariably descend from a noisesome head, handling a myriad of influences and impulses, and do not betray the usual screenwriter’s temptation to superglue every line of dialogue to a predetermined dramatic course.
Similar to You Can Count on Me, which, even during scenes of emotional and physical violence, was governed by the relatively bucolic atmosphere of the upstate New York burg where it was set, Margaret is cut from the chaotic cloth of the borough of Manhattan—the metropolis as a nest of angry hornets. Born and raised in the city, Lonergan nevertheless captures particulars of its character (sound, image, and texture) in a way that suggests the everything-is-new inquisitiveness of a first-time visitor. It may seem like, since the cinema began, just about every square inch of New York City has been captured in countless movies (and TV programs), but Margaret behaves as if it’s the first. Lonergan’s city appears as an undiscovered country, teeming with impatient, weary life.
Ostensibly about Lisa, a teenage girl played by Anna Paquin, coping with having witnessed (and, probably, indirectly caused) a fatal bus accident on the Upper West Side, Margaret has broader concerns in mind, never looking at one thing without considering its obverse face. We travel alongside Lisa, but we are coached by the direction, soundtrack, and framing to look upon her, and around her, as often as we share what she’s looking at, and probably feeling. Like Hulot in Playtime, she oscillates between being the central actor in Lonergan’s urban epic, and a mere part of the collage.
Margaret, as we’ve come to learn, doesn’t appear in the film; she’s a character in a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Spring and Fall,” which is quoted in one of many classroom scenes. The poem expresses poetically what a key character puts into dialogue later in the film, that we may mourn maturity, or the hardening processes of adulthood, as if it was also a kind of death, or seasonal transition. Lonergan’s unique, restless film inherits some of the feelings expressed in the Hopkins poem, but, in many ways, flips the equation, as its bold, cocksure, and occasionally callous heroine is often seen chasing the horse with the cart, presuming some pay-grade adjustment for what she’s been through, some seat at some big, adult table, before she’s even begun to account for any changes to her condition, psyche, or what have you, from that day, walking through the Upper West Side, trying to find a cowboy hat.
A great writer of people, with an uncanny ability to measure empathy against dispassion, Lonergan sees no percentage in saddling his characters with artificial character development; even in a moment of catastrophe, he observes the everyday stupidity, inadequate good intentions, and impatience of a city that will retard its momentum for precisely as long as decorum requires, and not a second longer. That’s why Margaret both is and isn’t a meditation on post-9/11 coping. Lisa is too specific and strange to bear the burden of “metaphor for humanity,” but the way Lonergan frequently points to, then counteracts, Lisa’s insistent proclamations of centrality, uniqueness, and vividness of feeling, can hardly be a coincidence, if we’re to think about “our” place in the film. She may believe in her crusade (to petition for the driver’s dismissal, to atone for her part in the woman’s death, to be the only person on the planet who can adequately mourn for the victim), she may even sell us on part of it, but the city overwhelms her shouting and waving with a calculus of cross-purposes and needs she can barely begin to comprehend.
Fox was able to produce a 1080p transfer only of the theatrical cut of Margaret, but it's strong and clean, with only a few specks of dust that you probably won't notice if you aren't looking for them. Some of the softer solids betray a hint of posterization, but this isn't a persistent problem, and contrast levels are pretty impressive. The three-hour "extended cut" of the film is presented on a DVD; obviously a standard-definition transfer doesn't correspond with the dream of "the ultimate Margaret" (plus it uses temp titles and a non-final sound mix), nor is it quite the same situation as the "butchered versus complete" versions of Once Upon a Time in America, but the longer Margaret, while adhering to the same, larger outline as the 150-minute cut, is different in ways that deepen and enhance Kenneth Lonergan's grand tapestry. A lot of relationship and subplot tissue is strengthened, and the sound mix—a mosaic of relevant and intentionally irrelevant (one might say supra-liminal) dialogue, which calls to mind David Foster Wallace's possibly facetious riposte to Robert Altman's layered dialogue methodology, from a cinephilic digression in Infinite Jest—plays up the chaotic city symphony in ways that are only suggested in the theatrical cut.
Nothing beyond the never-before-seen extended cut of the film.
A bit of a home-video miracle: a film that barely saw the light of day, on a Blu-ray that almost didn’t happen, with an extended cut that fans thought they’d never see.