Margaret: Extended Cut review
Before I get into details about the extended cut of Margaret (which, starting today, is available on DVD exclusively through Amazon), I should note that—at the cut's theatrical premiere in New York last night—I was one of four critics writer-director Kenneth Lonergan thanked by name for our persistent support of the film. As such, consider me hopelessly flattered, grateful, biased and guilty of any other charges of partisanship you'd care to throw my way.
The packed event was something. Apart from having possibly the largest reunion of the cast yet assembled—with even Jeannie Berlin turning up and dressing down Q&A moderator Tony Kushner for an overreaching question—the evening seemed to bring some degree of closure to a project the director had labored on for more than a decade. (It was held in limbo for years by lawsuits.) Lonergan began the evening with a lengthy list of thank-yous, citing, among others, the Twitter movement #TeamMargaret; his lawyer Matt Rosengart; "the entire British nation, who gave the film a real boost when we really needed it"; and the late Sydney Pollack, who was one of the film's producers. "It doesn't matter if I thank him," Lonergan said, noting that he doesn't believe in an afterlife, "but I would like to acknowledge him."
Admirers of the movie always assumed that Lonergan's grand vision had been truncated in the editing room, and that a longer cut would be almost universally received as a masterpiece. Even the greatest movie ever made probably wouldn't have satisfied my expectations. But the most striking thing about the new Margaret is that it's not simply longer; it's different—a remix that uses alternate takes, completely overhauls the sound design and to some degree dilutes the movie's focus even further. J. Smith-Cameron's Joan has an increased presence, for instance, while Berlin's Emily registers with considerably less force, at least for me. (I've seen the theatrical edition five times, each viewing as exhilarating as the last.)
Lonergan is careful to use the phrase "extended cut" to describe this version, as the theatrical cut was also his "director's cut," per se; it's just that he was limited to 150 minutes. Last night's 188-minute epic actually has a lot in common with Apocalypse Now Redux: It shows you a fuller version of what the filmmaker intended while at the same time adding a few awkward scenes and transitions that dilute the movie's overall impact. I can now picture a perfect version of Margaret, restoring crucial plot elements and Lonergan's experiments with sound design. But Margaret, the extended cut, is not that version.
As part of the introduction, Indiewire critic Eric Kohn warned us that the new Margaret was assembled from rough dailies and workprints; from the opening minutes, it was clear that both the image quality and the sound were far from polished. In the scene when Lisa (Anna Paquin) and Emily (Berlin) have lunch with lawyer Dave (Michael Ealy), I was particularly distracted by background noise. It's clear that some of that is intentional: Lonergan has said he wanted to create the impression that Lisa, who's been traumatized, feels as though life has taken no notice of her. The new version of the film enhances that element in a radical way: There are now lengthy sequences in which bystanders' dialogue—or jackhammers or traffic noise—drowns out the main characters. Much of Nico Muhly's score has been replaced with opera selections, a choice that's thematically consistent but drastically alters the emotional pitch of several scenes.
If you've seen no version of Margaret at all, I'd recommend starting with the smoother theatrical cut and then seeing this one; together, they enhance each other, and provide a more complete view of the Margaret that might have been. But I'm not sure if I'd have recognized the movie as one of the great contemporary films if I'd seen only the longer version. It's a rougher, less structured, more alienating movie—in some ways closer to the Cassavetes comparison that many critics made.
Critical plot points have been restored. (For those who haven't seen the film, spoilers abound from now on.) There's much more of Lisa's friend and would-be boyfriend Darren (John Gallagher Jr.), including a supremely disorienting scene in a diner and a school-play subplot that snaps her relationship with him—and implicitly her actress mother—into greater focus. There is now a brief thread clarifying that Monica (Allison Janney), the woman killed in the accident, had a fraught financial relationship with her cousin Abigail (Betsy Aidem), who stands to benefit from the lawsuit. And yes, it's confirmed that Lisa does indeed have an abortion, which she claims to have had—but might be lying about—in the theatrical cut.
There are also cases in which alternate takes complicate our perception of the characters. The scene of a stoned Lisa kissing Darren at party ("You know I really love you, right?") is now shown in a tighter closeup; it's more intimate, more threatening and serves a clearer purpose now that Darren's role in the film has been enhanced. On the other hand, one of the film's funniest scenes, in which Karl (Lonergan himself) complains that Annette (Kelly Wolf) must be facing "intolerable pressure" to make meal choices for a camping trip a month away, is edited in such a way that Karl comes across as more embittered than wry. One of the more overlooked plot elements in the film—the camping trip is canceled, which means that Lisa's quest to find her cowboy hat, which inadvertently leads to the accident, was for naught—isn't punctuated as clearly here.
For #TeamMargaret superfans, I've made a list of some of the other more noticeable changes.
-There's a different, more temporary-looking font over the opening credits.
-In the bus accident scene, as the bus stops, the camera now comes to rest and lingers on the upscale grocery stores Fairway and Citarella. It's a moment that increases the sense of eerie calm after the trauma.
-There's a new scene of Lisa removing her bloody clothes; while she does this, we hear pigeons in the background. It's another moment that heightens the sense that the world is just continuing its business around her. Lisa also gets blood on her bed.
-Joan insists on helping Lisa scrub the blood off her boots.
-It's now made explicit that Lisa has walked out of the movie she goes to see with Darren.
-In the film's most experimental scene, we watch a slow zoom on Lisa and Darren having lunch in a diner, but we hear two yentas chatting at the booth next door (along with a bit of Lonergan's voice)—an element any other movie would reduce to background noise. We don't hear Lisa's words ("I guess I don't feel that way about you") until the zoom is almost complete. You can't watch this scene and not realize that the "messiness" many critics of the original complained about is absolutely intentional. As Lonergan told me in February, he wanted to shoot the film as if Lisa was no more important than anyone else in the frame.
-Just before Lisa confesses to Joan about lying to the police, we see a pan of several neighboring apartment windows and hear dialogue from them ("I really don't want to shout from room to room!" someone says, in a bit of a joke)—creating the impression that Lisa and Joan's conversation is just one of many stories in the naked city.
-At least one moment has been cut entirely: When Lisa calls Paul (Kieran Culkin) to ask whether he's available to take away her virginity, there's no longer that funny bit in which Paul writes Lisa's address on his wall (among many others, one presumes).
-There are two restored scenes with Paul, both good, in which Lisa interrogates him about why everything he says sounds ironic ("It's just a gift," he replies), and another in which, justifying his failure to use a condom, he fatuously declares, "I'm pretty sure I don't have AIDS because of my demographic."
-There's the school play scene, discussed above, in which Paul and Darren are both present.
-At Monica's memorial service, Emily gives a longer speech.
-The camera lingers on an American flag blowing outside the bus driver's home in Bay Ridge, adding to the movie's post-9/11 subtext. (There's also another very long shot of a low-flying plane.)
-We now clearly hear radio noise of a news report about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over a moment of Joan talking about her reviews.
-When Lisa tells Detective Mitchell (Stephen Adly Guirgis) she lied, and requests that he arrest the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), Mitchell gives a longer, more intimidating response, asking, "And whaddya think I should do with you?" He's now compounding rather than simply assuaging Lisa's guilt.
-In a crucial addition, nearly all of the scenes with Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon) are slightly longer. The interlude when Lisa confronts him on Central Park West and asks about horseback riding now includes her asking him, "How is it possible that I am totally in love with you?" Just a few new lines of dialogue give a scene that seemed superfluous in the theatrical cut a clear dramatic function.
-When Mitchell tells Lisa that the driver won't be prosecuted, his words are now drowned out by fellow cop Kevin Geer's discussion in the background. This is a pretty destructive change, as it distracts from one of Adly Guirgis's best moments and mutes some of the film's most memorable lines.
-There's now a rooftop scene between Joan and Ramon (Jean Reno), just before he shows her pictures of his kids. You can understand why the scene was written—Joan wants to discuss their relationship, and he shushes her—but apart from some stunning views of the skyline, it plays as pretty flat.
-There's an added line indicating that Mark Ruffalo's bus driver's brother-in-law is "some very big union muckety muck," increasing the sense that the deck is stacked against Lisa.
-It's not an addition, but those weird cutaways to boats during the scene when Abigail first meets with Russell (Jonathan Hadary) are still there. I'd always assumed they were inserted to suture a shortened scene.
-There are a few slightly different takes of Emily in the "strident" scene. This screening was the only time, in six total viewings, that the moment failed to send a chill down my spine.
-There's now a disruption in the scene when Ramon talks about "the Jewish response"—we briefly hear dialogue from a neighboring table. As in Mitchell's final scene, the change distracts from some of the best lines in the film.
-Lisa informs Joan that she's pregnant, and Joan asks her what she wants to do about her baby—a word that catches Lisa off-guard. The abortion scene casts Lisa's relationship with her mother in a different light, although, strangely, it also diminishes the impact of her final confrontation with Mr. Aaron—a moment that indicated to many viewers that something had been cut.
-There's none of Nico Muhly's heartbreaking score over the final conference call, which has the effect of distancing us from Lisa's anger. "Having used so much of it in the other [theatrical] version," Lonergan said last night, "I could simply go the other way with this version."
Indeed, seeing the movie both ways is fascinating. Margaret was always an outsize vision—a vision too big, it turns out, to fit within one film.