The movie Margaret doesn’t have a character named Margaret in it, and some might argue that there isn’t even a movie of the same name in there.
Kenneth Lonergan’s follow-up to 2000’s You Can Count on Me suffered from a notoriously troubled post-production period, spanning both multiple years and multiple lawsuits as producers Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack passed away and the writer-director struggled to find the film he wanted amid footage shot back in 2005. The version currently released is reportedly Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker’s uncredited attempt to curtail Lonergan’s preferred three-hour cut into a contractually-obligated 2.5 hours, and it stands as a clumsily edited curio whose interwoven character threads fall somewhere between piecemeal and patchwork.
The title is taken from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, one read by an English teacher (Matthew Broderick) as Lisa (Anna Paquin) looks on in a daze. It is she who is grieving in the wake of a bus accident that claimed the life of a Manhattan pedestrian (Allison Janney), an accident inadvertently caused by Lisa’s distraction of the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) as he approached an intersection and unwittingly ran the red light. The teen is first plagued with guilt, then possessed by it as she seeks to redirect the blame on the driver that she had initially claimed was innocent.
An acclaimed playwright off-screen, Lonergan’s Margaret strikes a more theatrical tone early on than You Can Count on Me ever did, with the ensemble – and Lisa, especially – all seeming a mite too clever for their own good, very nearly stepping on one another’s lines in some scenes. Hell, even the dying woman manages to be awfully articulate in her final moments. However, Lisa is often unsure of how to articulate herself, occasionally chalking up her aggressive chattiness to being the daughter of a Broadway actress (played by Lonergan’s own wife, J. Smith-Cameron), and it’s made clear that – even before the bus accident – this young woman was her own callous, confrontational being, lashing out at classmates, teachers (including Matt Damon) and family members at almost every turn and now eager to turn that unfocused angst towards equally grief-stricken bus drivers, preoccupied police officers and ineffectual legal counsel.
Her behavioral tendencies directly result in perhaps the film’s biggest hurdle, one unlikely to be remedied by any efforts in the editing room: Paquin’s performance. She plays Lisa as someone a bit too brittle, a bit too volatile for us to remain invested for the course of her emotional journey, taking a character defined by coming-of-age, country-in-tumult insecurities and rendering her into a shrill, constant center of attention. Conversely, Margaret’s greatest virtue is evidenced whenever it broadens its scope beyond Lisa. It isn’t that following Lisa’s mom around as she dates a newfound fan (Jean Reno) is necessarily more fascinating to watch, but on occasion, the film captures a welcome cross-section of modern New York life, serving as a freeform antidote to the intersecting-lives tidiness of similar films from the likes of Haggis and Iñárritu. (Then again, the definition of how modern that New York life is remains fuzzy – after all, when Lisa makes a passing knock against the standing U.S. President, the audience is hardly given any indication that she is referring to Bush rather than Obama.)
As it stands now, the film resembles a pointillist painting at best, bringing forth unexpected shades and hues out from between dozens of disparate points. What a pity it is that we can never know for sure whether that painting might have been a full-blown work of art.