Few films in recent years have required their audiences to wait as long to see them as writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret — and even fewer have been so worth the wait. Lonergan’s previous film, You Can Count on Me, was an indie sensation when it was released back in 2000. He directed his follow-up, Margaret, in 2005, but the movie’s release was held up until late 2011. Even then, it played only on a small number of screens, with virtually no marketing support. Over the years, numerous rumors purporting to explain the delay have circulated, many of them revolving around Lonergan’s alleged perfectionism and battles with his producers over the movie’s running time. (The final theatrical version runs 150 minutes, about a half-hour shorter than Lonergan wanted.) As of this writing the film is still the subject of numerous lawsuits among the filmmakers and financiers, so the truth behind its tortured history remains murky. What is obvious, however, is Lonergan’s painstaking perfectionism, and the battles he fought have resulted in one of the landmarks of recent American cinema — a masterpiece by a filmmaker whose precision of expression is exceeded only by the depth of his worldview.
The story follows Lisa (Anna Paquin), a privileged Manhattan teenager whose life is changed when she witnesses — and to a certain degree is culpable in – a bus accident that kills a pedestrian. Initially, she lies to the police about what happened in order to protect the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), but as weeks pass, Lisa regrets her handling of the situation and tries, in mostly misguided ways, to correct what she sees as a great injustice in the way the whole thing played out. Her self-absorption (an affliction common to nearly all of the characters in Margaret) keeps her from comprehending the true effects of her actions, yet those actions have a profound impact not only on the people directly involved in the accident, but also on Lisa’s family, friends, teachers and people she barely knows.
As in You Can Count on Me, Lonergan uses his premise to explore weighty moral and philosophical issues, but his vision here is far broader than in his debut film. Although Margaret is clearly Lisa’s story, Lonergan’s determination to follow through on every tributary of his plot generates an ensemble of fully realized and original characters — parents, boyfriends, lawyers, teachers, etc. — and allows the director to explore a number of complex subjects from a wide array of perspectives. The movie takes on the struggle to find meaning in death, the nature of innocence, the relationship of private to public selves, the elusive quality of legal and moral justice and many more difficult concepts. These issues are beautifully examined on a personal level through the drama, but Lonergan’s interests extend beyond these particular, expertly written and acted characters. By contextualizing the story in post-9/11 New York, the director zeroes in on a key problem of our era: the inability of not only individuals, but also governments, cultures and religions to look beyond their own narrowly circumscribed points of view. That point ends up superseding all others in the film. Lonergan himself skillfully avoids making that mistake in his sophisticated, wide-ranging narrative.
For all that Margaret has to say and for all the powerful emotions swirling around its center, Lonergan does not force his effects — something that also can be said for the cinematography by Ryszard Lenczewski. Lenczewski employs an unobtrusive, naturalistic visual style that showcases the performances but is deceptively simple; on repeat viewings, the elegance of his compositions and the subtle shifts in color and light to convey the characters’ inner states are readily apparent. Fox’s new Blu-ray is true to its source, preserving the texture of Lenczewski’s images in a way that made this reviewer a bit nostalgic for the grain that was more prevalent in movies back when Margaret was shot, before digital capture became the norm. Skin tones and contrast are perfect, as is a terrific 5.1 surround mix that emphasizes the immersive urban environment in which Margaret is set. That aspect of the film is even more prevalent on the disc’s one extra feature, which is a standard-definition DVD of the movie that contains Lonergan’s full, three-hour cut. This cut not only expands upon and deepens the subplots and themes of the film, but also contains a different sound mix that favors extraneous conversations and city noises inaudible on the theatrical cut. The result is an even more sweeping, inclusive version of an intimate epic that was plenty ambitious to begin with.