Last September, a film opened starring Anna Paquin, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, and Matthew Broderick, and in all likelihood, you did not even know it existed. In its widest release, it played on a mere fourteen screens across the entire country, making less than fifty thousand dollars in its total domestic run.* After four weeks of theatrical exhibition, Margaret vanished with just as little fanfare as that with which it arrived, with nothing to show for its six tumultuous years of post-production other than a handful of mixed reviews and some lousy grosses.
And wouldn’t you know it, the movie itself is actually a shaggy, deeply misunderstood gem.
Since the middle of the last decade, Margaret has been a point of confusion and contention for film lovers and industry observers alike. Writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s long-awaited follow-up to 2000’s critically acclaimed You Can Count On Me, Margaret first found itself in front of camera in the fall of 2005, with producers Gary Gilbert, Scott Rudin, Sydney Pollack, and Anthony Minghella ostensibly ensuring the kind of high-profile prestige picture that traditionally ensnares major awards buzz.
There were rumors of the film hitting theatres in 2006. Then 2007. Pretty soon 2008 rolled around, with distributor Fox Searchlight making no mention of any foreseeable release for Margaret. Pollack and Minghella both passed away. With two of the film’s producers dead, another year went by.
Finally, in 2009, word escaped from the Margaret editing bay, as The Los Angeles Times released a story that detailed Lonergan’s struggles with trimming the film down to his contractually obligated running time of fewer than 150 minutes. Martin Scorsese (who collaborated with Longeran on Gangs of New York) and his editor Thelma Schoonmaker were brought in to try and help Lonergan assemble a releasable final product, with Scorsese referring to a 2006 edit as “a masterpiece.” Somewhere along the way, both Searchlight and Gilbert’s Camelot Pictures decided to stop funneling money into a movie they deemed “unmarketable,” thus forcing Lonergan to borrow a million dollars from Broderick (a close friend of his) in order to further attempt to complete the film. Gilbert, the producer behind Garden State and The Kids Are All Right, went on to sue both Searchlight and Lonergan, with neither Gilbert or Lonergan willing to compromise regarding Margaret’s unwieldy length.
After another two years of lawsuits, Fox Searchlight very quietly slated Margaret for a late September release, hastily assembled the bare minimum of marketing materials, and dumped the film into theatres. It is also important to note that the 149-minute and thirty second version of Margaret that played at the Sunshine four months ago was not Lonergan’s final cut – rather, it was edited down by the “powerbrokers” from the much longer version that Lonergan completed with Scorsese. While Lonergan has given the theatrical cut his blessing, make no mistake: This is merely the compromise version that everybody finally could agree on.
Of course, the bitterly amusing irony about all of this is that Margaret is about (among many other things) a lawsuit. Paquin stars as Lisa Cohen, a precocious and self-centered Upper West Side prep school teen, who one day accidentally distracts a cowboy hat-wearing bus driver (Ruffalo), resulting in the death of a pedestrian (Allison Janney, riveting in just one short scene) whose life ends in Lisa’s arms. Lisa proceeds to drift through life in a daze, searching for some semblance of justice, and thus lending the film a formal shapelessness that may be infuriating for some. She vehemently argues about the Iraq War in class, she clumsily loses her virginity to a druggie classmate (Kieran Culkin), she gets high, she argues with her mother, and eventually, almost halfway through the film, she decides to sue the bus driver. In turn, Lonergan presents an epic examination of youthful disillusionment that is part female Catcher in the Rye, part legal drama, and part post-9/11 allegory.
Yet while this structural shagginess is endearing for the film’s first hour or so, at a certain point, it becomes readily apparent that you’re watching a cut of the film that has been assembled by lawyers. Characters drop in and out. Subplots lead nowhere. A few scenes just haphazardly end abruptly. However, considering the extent to which Lonergan’s grand opus toys with themes of what a messy place the world can be, it seems only fitting for the film to finally see the light of day in such a sloppy state. To quote Village Voice critic Karina Longworth: “If Margaret is a mess, it only makes us conscious of the messiness that we somehow manage to navigate every moment of our lives.” While Broderick’s portrayal of a meek, humiliated high school English teacher who violently argues with one student over a bizarre interpretation of King Lear may not add anything to the film’s narrative, it lends a sense of life to the proceedings that is more often found in a novel or a miniseries. Simply put, this is a film that seems to be bursting at the seams with ideas and personalities and nuances, and that’s a breathtaking thing to behold on screen.
Sure, Margaret‘s not perfect, and though that imperfection may be oddly true to Lonergan’s vision of life’s instability and bitter truths (and if the 198-page shooting script on my hard drive is any indication, it is), it would be thrilling to see the film in its original, fully untethered form. Even in a state that feels incomplete though, Margaret is a cinematic triumph that puts more polished films to shame, with Paquin in particular turning in a phenomenal performance that balances neediness, insecurity, unqualified optimism, entitlement, and neuroses in one hyper-articulate, perfectly mannered shell. In other words, she plays a teenager, and she does so very well. Had this film been seen in time for our top ten films of 2011, it would have easily made the top five at least, and last year was a damn good year for movies.
Thankfully though, it seems that others share this enthusiasm. About two months after Margaret tanked in theatres, #TeamMargaret began trending on Twitter, thanks to an army of film critics and enthusiasts alike who were eager to have Lonergan’s strange little orphan of a movie receive the attention it deserves.
By the end of December, the film was re-released without so much as a whimper at New York’s own Cinema Village on 12th St., where it has continued to play since on a week-by-week basis. Curiously, it was reported that the Cinema Village’s owner had to contact the studio independently in order to acquire the print. In other words, this low-key re-release was not something assembled by Fox Searchlight, though the studio did send out awards screeners of the film at the last minute.
As of the time of writing, there is no home video release planned for Margaret, and when the film eventually does hit DVD, it’s unclear if we’ll ever get a look at Lonergan’s ultimate three-and-a-half-hour cut. All the same though, we highly recommend that you give Margaret the time of day while it still plays at the Cinema Village. Kenneth Lonergan spent six years assembling this rich, strange, bold, uncompromising, rambling, and wholly unique little odyssey of a film. The least you can do is give him 149 minutes and thirty seconds of your time just to make up your own mind about what happened along the way.
* For a point of comparison, the Ralph Fiennes Shakespeare adaptation Coriolanus made approximately four thousand dollars more last weekend alone than Margaret did over the entirety of its release. Coriolanus was only on twelve screens.