Written and directed by filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan (only his second directorial feature after the multi award-winning You Can Count On Me), Margaret is a rambling, overpowered modern drama that bravely taps into people’s post 9/11 fear and hostility. Delayed, re-edited and shrouded in several still unfolding lawsuits, Lonergan’s effort seemed unlikely to see the light of day. But, thankfully Margaret now makes its way to cinema screens, albeit in a limited capacity, bearing the mark of its six year journey.
When tumultuous college student Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) is involved in a horrific bus accident that claims the life of a compassionate woman (Allison Janney), her tremendous remorse leads her on a uphill battle to bring about some kind of resolution for those closely associated with her, all the while navigating her own progression into adulthood. When quickly summarised, the plot may appear simple and unworthy of its lengthy running time and hype, but Lonergan’s reaction piece is far more worthwhile and invested in presenting a wider set of ideals and questions than that of other, more clean cut post-9/11 films, such as Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centre.
If, however, a simple story is all you’re looking for, then Margaret isn’t the film for you. Multiple re-edits have taken their toll, leaving the released cut ragged around the edges, with sub-plots and shady supporting characters that come and go without any particular desire for definite resolution. Though these elements likely make the film a harder watch than Lonergan intended while he was making it way back when, it’s extremely interesting to see a filmmaker and storyteller work outside of the box, reject traditional narrative tropes and present exactly the sort of post-9/11 story that needs to be told. I mean, who really wants to watch an arduous, straightforward film like World Trade Centre when they could have their mind tested with Margaret?
In many ways, the scattered structure works in Margaret’s favour, as the audience is left entirely in the dark as to where the film is heading and what exactly it is we’re supposed to hone in on. Unravelling as a slow-burning thriller, Margaret instills a sense of uneasiness and intrigue, hooking you from the offset and making you question every single thing that plays out, whether it be an argument, simple act of sex or sly glance – everything on display is a cause for concern in that it might somehow effect the overarching narrative further down the line.
In a similar way to the scattered narrative mentioned above, none of the characters – from Paquin’s Lisa to Matt Damon’s college professor Mr. Aaron – are presented as straightforward people with straightforward lives. Each one of them has interesting problems, making them relatable in everything they do. Lisa and her mother Joan (J. Smith Cameron), in particular, create an interesting mother-daughter dynamic that, while feeling entirely realistic (loud arguments transcend into subtle moments of affection), accentuates the fact that not everyone is the same, highlighting the aggravation this may cause us to harbour towards parents, contemporaries and the overriding law.
The cast, comprised of both the well known – Paquin, Damon and Mark Ruffalo – and underused – Janney, Cameron and Kieran Culkin – hit every conceivable note you could possibly envision. Paquin, who has been working with material unworthy of her skill since her Academy Award winning turn opposite Holly Hunter in The Piano, delivers a career-defining performance as Lisa. Crippled by emotion and powered by fear, passion and unfathomable outrage, Lisa is a young woman coming into her own, struggling between the innocence of her childhood and desire to assert herself as strong, independent woman. Paquin handles the part with an incredible ease, humour and assurance that it makes you furious to think she’s unlikely to receive any kind of commendation for her excellence.
As erratic, drawn-out and over-encompassing as it may be, Lonergan’s second directorial effort is a force of nature that rips through your being like a tidal wave of emotions. It’s still unclear whether or not it’ll receive the push it needs to claim statues come the Academy Awards next month, but if it doesn’t, then it’ll be a colossal mistake – one that can only be attributed to Fox Searchlight’s insulting commitment as distributor.