As a child on a family trip in the 1970s, I saw a motorcycle speed past with a teenage couple. A car was making a u-turn and the motorcycle slammed into it, the teenagers taking flight onto the cement. I screamed and my parents stopped to assist the pair, who were sitting on the road, faces and jeans covered in blood. The kids were fine, but I have never forgotten the traumatic scene. I was reminded of this when watching "Margaret," Kenneth Lonergan's epic 2011 film, as seemingly out of nowhere a similar incident takes place on the streets of New York City. One of life's mysteries is the unexpected emergence of tragedy, appearing as rapidly as the funnel of a tornado. Sometimes no one is to blame, a terrible truth difficult to grasp.
When viewing "Margaret" for the first time, I was fortunate to have no preconceived notions. Its unique structure created a rare sensation of being unable to predict the outcome. This is a brilliant masterpiece, audacious and deeply inspired. Longeran, the writer and director, has dared to be great with the kind of project reminiscent of filmmakers of the 1970s. As I later learned, "Margaret" was filmed in 2004, but Lonergan became obsessed in the editing room, unable to achieve a final cut. Lonergan was trapped by a maddening vision in the great tradition of Sam Peckinpah (Major Dundee), Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now [HD]) and Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo). Such a quest produces the kind of art "Margaret" represents. Ahab goes after a whale. Herzog transports a boat. Lonergan, an unlikely existential madman, goes after life's meaning in post-911 New York.
Okay, so this film remained in hiatus for years, finally reaching theaters in 2011. I knew none of this when viewing it, and was stunned by unexpected greatness. Lonergan's previous film was You Can Count On Me, a wonderfully-acted independent drama perhaps a tad overrated. And then came "Margaret," and Lonergan may well have destroyed his career. No matter, this film plays like Chekhov, a visionary work with many questions and few answers. I'm amazed by the negative reviews and realize critics were aware of the film's troubled background. Luckily, I was blissfully ignorant.
In one of the great performances, Anna Pacquin plays Lisa Cohen, a budding high school teenager who fatefully witnesses urban tragedy. She represses the trauma and for the remainder of the 150-minute film (another version runs three hours) she attempts to come to terms with its deadly consequences. The trauma festers, bubbling to the surface in fits of anguish. Pacquin's character, tortured by guilt, wants to do the right thing even if there is no clear answer as to what is "right." Lonergan is perhaps creating a parable for the New York terrorist attacks, followed by America's war with Iraq, or viewers can take it for something else -- a coddled though clever New York teen in serious need of therapy.
But the film is so well made, I'm of the belief Lonergan was on to something. Perhaps one of the hard truths of life is our own insignificance within the universe, where unexpected tragedy can strike at any time. We have no power over such occurrences, and justice oftentimes does not exist. Once such a truth is realized, have we lost the innocence of childhood? If this sounds like a brooding novel, that's because "Margaret" plays like one.
It's difficult to categorize this drama, but I was reminded of the works of Michael Haneke (The Michael Haneke Collection (The Piano Teacher/Funny Games/Code Unknown/The Castle/Benny's Video/The Seventh Continent/71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance) (7pc), The White Ribbon [Blu-ray], Cache (Hidden)). One of our greatest living directors by way of Austria, his morose films never follow convenient paths, with shocking violence erupting at unexpected moments. His thought-provoking dramas are as unsettling as a Droog humming Beethoven. Lonergan has dared to tread similar turf.
"Margaret" is supported by an extraordinary ensemble cast including Mark Ruffalo, Jean Reno, Matt Damon, Matthew Broderick, Kieran Culkin and Rosemarie DeWitt, each with crucial moments providing layers to this complicated film. An added note must be made about the performances of J. Smith Cameron, as Lisa's mother, and Jeannie Berlin, as an elder friend who becomes Lisa's uneasy confidante. These essentially unknown actresses give searing portrayals in difficult, unwieldy roles. Lonergan's film shocked me, not just because of its emotional truth, but because of its tenacious refusal to follow any kind of convention common in films today. "Margaret" is one of the great films of the 21st century.