Cinema history is filled with the stories of filmmakers and studios struggling with each other over the lengths of movies. Director Erich von Stroheim‘s ten-hour cut of his 1924 film Greed was edited to two and a half hours by MGM despite his wishes, both Frank Capra‘s Lost Horizons and Orson Welles‘ The Magnificent Ambersons lost nearly an hour, and the film that legendarily bankrupted United Artists, Heaven’s Gate, was cut from its initial five and a half hour length to three and a half hours, then again a week after its release to two and a half hours. Ultimately studios have struggled with filmmakers since the beginning of the industry over artistic achievement and the limits of commercial filmmaking.
Margaret is one of the latest films to undergo this type of struggle. Though shot in 2005 by writer/director Kenneth Lonergan (who is best known for writing the screenplay for Gangs of New York), the film was not released until 2011 because of arguments between Lonergan and the studio, Fox Searchlight, over the length of the film. While Lonergan wasn’t insisting on releasing a Greed-length film, his initial three-hour cut of Margaret was deemed to be too long by the studio, which insisted that it would not release the film if it were over two and a half hours. After a prolonged legal battle with a number of lawsuits, a two hour, twenty-nine minute cut that was assembled in part by none other than Martin Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker was finally approved for limited release by both Lonergan and Fox Searchlight at the end of 2011.
Though the film is generally about the life of the seventeen year old Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), the film centers on one tragic event in her otherwise uneventful Upper West Side private school existance. While searching in vain for a cowboy hat for her upcoming horseback riding trip to New Mexico, Lisa spots a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) wearing a cowboy hat. As the driver pulls from the curb, Lisa chases after the bus asking about his hat. It distracts the driver enough to cause him to run through a red light, crushing Monica Paterson (Allison Janney), who dies in Lisa’s arms. In the aftermath of the accident, a distraught Lisa tells the police that the light was green and neither the driver nor her distraction were the cause of the accident.
Lisa’s behavior afterwards becomes increasingly erratic. She’s surly with her mother, disrespectful with her classmates, and opens up sexually, including flirting with her math teacher Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon). She befriends Monica’s best friend, Emily (Jeannie Berlin), and feels increasingly compelled to tell the police about what she really saw at the accident. However, as she gains an understanding of the legal process, she begins to realize that the justice she seeks that would absolve her of the responsibility she feels for causing the accident does not truly exist. At the same time, Lisa’s divorced mother, Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), a New York City theater actress, is having problems in her own life as she tries to maintain a connection to her troubled daughter.
In portraying a teenager in turmoil, Lonergan wins on all levels. Lisa is besieged by problems in every facet of her life all stemming from her feelings relating to Monica’s death. Paquin, who in 2005 was still a somewhat awkward looking early twenty-something rather than the sexy Sookie on True Blood today, transcends any role she has done before or since as Lisa, and for that reason alone this movie deserves more attention. It would’ve been easy to make Lisa a Juno-like character who everyone finds adorable, but Paquin and Lonergan don’t shy away from making Lisa unlikable. Not many young actresses have the dramatic ability to carry an entire film, but Paquin did, and deserves praise, even if delayed. Smith-Cameron is equally impressive as a mother with her own problems and concerns having to deal with a daughter who is increasing distancing herself from her.
Yet at the same time, the film is already too long at 149 minutes. There are several ongoing storylines that ultimately play minor roles in the movie, and I’m not sure if they actually add much to the film. We seem to follow every facet of Lisa’s life in Margaret and there are a lot of other scenes consisting of subplots that really don’t add much to the film in hindsight. For example, Matthew Broderick‘s character, an English teacher, serves no role in the film except to show that English teachers are dorky and to introduce the poem that gives the film its title. Likewise, Lisa’s numerous arguments with her classmates, which are mostly about terrorism and Israel, show her to be increasingly opinionated and closed-minded about her sense of justice, but why so many, and so long? Even her interactions with Mr. Aaron don’t seem to go anywhere at first, then take a dramatic leap, including a revelatory scene between them toward the end of the film that isn’t the bombshell it ought to be because it lacks the proper setup. I’m certainly not saying I could do a better job than the editors (especially since Schoonmaker was involved in editing this cut), but I find it hard to believe that this was the best two and a half hour version of the film that could have been assembled from the existing footage. If all these scenes are supposed to be key to the narrative, why do they not really go anywhere? Why make the audience lose focus by constantly stopping to look at the minutia? I don’t think the problem here is that major parts of the subplots were cut out, I don’t think those subplots belonged there in the first place.
I understand that Lonergan’s intention is likely to show how this one tragic event consumes and influences everything in Lisa’s life moving forward (which is why many have related this movie to the aftermath of 9/11), but of the five or six storylines at least one or two of the minor ones could have been eliminated to give more focus to the main narratives. Yet even the main narratives could use some trimming. There’s too much legal mumbo-jumbo when Lisa and Emily are looking into possible lawsuits that could be filed over Monica’s death. And while Berlin is mostly impressive as Emily, there are plenty of moments where I hoped the editors had taken a razor to her over-the-top parts of her whiny upper-class New Yorker role (what’s the point in having her whine “I don’t understand” so often to the lawyers, especially since the lawyers explain what she doesn’t understand anyway.)
That isn’t to say the film as it is now isn’t compelling. It definitely is, mostly because of Paquin’s and Smith-Cameron’s performances. The story stuck with me and I wanted to see what Lisa would ultimately do to cope with her guilt relating to the accident. By the end I did feel like I had watched a teenager grow up before my eyes, something that is difficult to portray in such an emotional coming-of-age film.
While Margaret might be a masterpiece on that level, it’s ultimately a flawed one. If I had to guess where it went wrong, I would say it was probably in the writing stage, which is curious since Lonergan is primarily a screenwriter. Again, if Lonergan didn’t spread the drama across so many threads it would have made for a much more direct, harder-hitting film. Everything that is in the film now is shot beautifully and is acted superbly, yet that can’t make the story any more cohesive than it really needs to be.
Rating: An engaging, but troubled film made from material that needed another approach (7.5/10).
DVD Rating: Fox Searchlight wasn’t going to spend any more money on this film than necessary, so you don’t get a single feature on the DVD… but the Blu-ray is another story. Apparently the Blu-ray/DVD release will contain a three hour and six minutes extended cut by Lonergan, but my review copy only had the theatrical version. Part of me thinks Fox Searchlight is trying to avoid reviewers bestowing the lengthier cut with more praise than the theatrical one (that’s entirely speculation, of course, and it assumes the longer version is better, which might not be true). I’m also going that legal issues prevent a documentary feature that looks at the controversy over the editing. So for lack of anything worthwhile the DVD gets a (0/10).
Margaret is available as a Blu-ray/DVD combo containing both cuts on July 10.