Margaret is a masterpiece. Margaret is a debacle. It’s the follow-up from hell, the vindication of an exacting filmmaker, a potential career-crippler. It’s indulgent and “arty,” and it’s brisk and disciplined. And none of these judgments are necessarily dependent on or ruled out by which version of Margaret you see. More so than is usually the case with a released film and a rival “director’s cut,” Kenneth Lonergan’s latest offers up manifold versions and sides to an engrossing story and its backstory.
About that backstory. Having earned himself carte blanche (or at least the indie-cred version) with his celebrated directorial debut, 2000’s You Can Count on Me, playwright/screenwriter Lonergan set out on a new project in the early ’00s. His script attracted a high-end cast, including Anna Paquin, Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, Matt Damon, and Jean Reno, as well as a clutch of top New York stage actors, notably J. Smith-Cameron. And he insisted on, and was granted by the studio, the most coveted hole-card in filmmaking: absolute approval of the finished release, aka “final cut”—provided it came in at a scheduling-friendly 150 minutes or less.
He shot Margaret in 2005, when now 30-year-old star Paquin was far closer to the 17 or so she plays in the film. And then he sat down to edit. Lonergan worked and tinkered, adjusted and readjusted, reportedly unable to arrive at a final version that worked for him at the studio’s prescribed length. Years passed. Rumors began to filter out that his cut-in-progress was a masterpiece, and that there was infighting behind the scenes. By 2011, lawsuits had embroiled Lonergan, the film’s producer, and the studio, 20th Century Fox’s “indie” imprint Searchlight. Director Martin Scorsese and his long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker had presided over a cut that met the studio’s time limit and won Lonergan’s approval. After a brief run in a handful of theaters, that version now makes its way to the wider world via a Blu-ray release that features the 150-minute theatrical cut with a 186-minute extended version as a DVD “extra.”
At the root of all this showbiz drama you’ll find Lisa Cohen (Paquin), a slightly bratty upper-middle-class teen who shares a Manhattan apartment with her mother Joan (Smith-Cameron), a successful stage actress, and her little brother. A random encounter on a street corner leads to Lisa witnessing—and, in fact, contributing to—a bus driver (Ruffalo) running over and killing a pedestrian. Covered in someone else’s blood and traumatized, Lisa returns home and tries to move on as best she can. But as Lonergan’s camera watches, the stain seeps into all aspects of her life. The trauma and the slowly surfacing guilt play out in her relationships with her mom, her distant dad (Lonergan), her teachers (including Damon), and the boys in her orbit (including Kieran Culkin). Eventually she embarks on a belated crusade against Ruffalo’s working-class stiff, trying to make someone pay, despite the fault being far from clear-cut.
The theatrical cut serves that summary well. Tormented by her role in what happened, and her actions after the fact, Lisa goes into a bit of a teenage tailspin, acting out with handy young men and turning up the burner on the heated adolescent rhetoric she aims at her mother, who’s her own variety of wreck with a new show opening and a new beau, courtly opera buff Ramon (Reno). Lisa pursues Gerry, the bus driver, with a child’s sense of justice and right, though any redemption found here is fraught at best. It’s a good film, with a shrewd script and revelatory performances from Paquin and Smith-Cameron. (Thus far it’s the only version available for streaming or download.)
Lonergan’s three-hour cut is more indulgent. Stepping onto the terrace at Ramon’s luxe apartment, Joan says, “I love your view,” at which Lonergan halts the action for a slow rotating pan of the Manhattan skyline for several quiet seconds. The director often shoots dialogue in, say, a restaurant with chatter from surrounding tables jacked up as high as the key conversation in the sound mix. But these borderline distracting devices serve to bring more of New York itself into the film, making more clear the post-Sept. 11-resonant themes of survival and guilt. And while Margaret remains Lisa’s story in either version, the longer version goes deeper into all the characters. The melancholy middle-aged romance between mismatched Joan and Ramon is a tangent, but a welcome one as fully played out in the 186-minute cut.
Many of the trims to the shorter version make sense—excess banter, bits of character, whole scenes unimportant to the larger story whacked. But several key sequences—Lisa’s confrontation with Gerry, a pair of sidewalk encounters with Damon’s geometry teacher—are entirely recut, and not necessarily for the better. The Lisa of the 150-minute version is more like a conventional movie character than her 186-minute-version counterpart, a more perplexing and fully human figure in all respects. And while the former cut may be more convenient, it seems unlikely that anyone will ever mistake it for a great film. The latter comes tantalizingly close.