Margaret | Film review
After years in limbo, Kenneth Lonergan’s response to September 11 hits theaters. It’s worth the wait.
Margaret, Kenneth Lonergan’s first feature since You Can Count on Me (2000), was shot in 2005 but found itself mired in editing and legal limbo, with Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker reportedly involved at various stages of cutting. What’s more, the film was written early enough that it can be seen today from a privileged remove: as an immediate response to September 11, a story of the uneasy strangeness that follows when life, in spite of tragedy, moves on. If the present version occasionally loses the thread, that messiness is part of Lonergan’s design—a symptom of the outsize feelings and complexity the movie aims to put across onscreen.
For viewers who lived in New York at the time, the film has a specificity that’s hard to shake, particularly for those whose September 11 coincided with heated college political discussions. The proxy trauma that haunts high-school student Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) is a bus accident, which she inadvertently caused by distracting the driver (Mark Ruffalo). But part of what resonates about Margaret is that it’s not about any one thing: Lisa’s guilt coexists with other emotions, as she rebuffs the advances of a friend (John Howard Gallagher Jr.) in favor of defloration by a drugged-out asshole (Kieran Culkin), and later—as Paquin did in another post-9/11 movie, 25th Hour—flirts with a teacher (Matt Damon). Her attempt to connect with the best friend (is that Jeannie Berlin?) of the woman who was killed resolves itself in an uncommonly thorny way. Lonergan also accords ample screen time to Lisa’s mother (an excellent J. Smith-Cameron, the director’s wife), whose new relationship with a wealthy playboy (Jean Reno) compounds the volatility around her.
Lonergan, wonderful as Lisa’s father in California, retains his ear for credibly awkward exchanges; scene after scene shows the deflated responses that greet well-intentioned acts. You can’t always say the scenes hang together—the last third, in particular, goes heavy on legal procedure and Lonergan’s attempts to telegraph his operatic ambitions. But no movie out now sings as loudly.