Finally, the Definitive Cut of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret

Or is it?

Matt Damon and Anna Paquin in Margaret
Matt Damon and Anna Paquin in Margaret

Photograph courtesy Camelot Pictures.

Will the real Margaret please stand up? As movie studios squeeze the last drops from the era of physical media, reissuing and repackaging commercial product ad absurdum (Singin’ in the Rain, now with bonus umbrella!), it becomes more and more difficult to determine which of the endlessly proliferating versions of a movie we’re meant to see: Rated or unrated? Theatrical or director’s cut? 2-D or 3-D? But no sliced-and-diced blockbuster has ever arrived freighted with as much ambiguity as Kenneth Lonergan’s long-delayed magnum opus, which hits home video today as a two-disc edition containing the 150-minute theatrical version and a 186-minute “extended cut.” (The discs are available, at least initially, only via Amazon.)

The belated follow-up to 2000’s You Can Count on Me, Margaret took years to edit and spent years more in legal limbo, mired in three separate lawsuits involving Lonergan, the studio Fox Searchlight, and producer Gary Gilbert’s production company Camelot Pictures. (Joel Lovell’s recent New York Times Magazine article sifts through the salient details.) It was finally released theatrically in October, although as the old Hollywood joke goes, it would be more accurate to say that it escaped. Searchlight, whose back catalog includes Once and Slumdog Millionaire, is the present-day master of turning unassuming movies into cultural events, but Margaret could not have debuted with less fanfare had the film prints been thrown from the back of a speeding van. Critics’ screenings were scheduled only days before opening, too late for many deadlines; advertising was almost nonexistent—although, to be fair, it’s hard to think of the appropriate Happy Meal tchotchke for a film that centers on a high-school student traumatized by a fatal bus accident.

Critics, spurred by an online campaign started by Slant magazine’s Jaime Christley, rallied to the cause of what some saw as an abandoned masterpiece, while at the same time wondering if a more perfectly realized version of the film might exist somewhere. For a movie devoted to the messy sprawl of human existence, the theatrical cut felt truncated in spots, its 2½-hours running time a product of contractual obligation rather than artistic vision. Muzzled by ongoing litigation, Lonergan kept mum, and when he did open his mouth, often in the company of an attorney, he sounded like a hostage with a gun to his head: “I support this Cut wholeheartedly and want people to see and like it, because the actors deserve to be seen and appreciated for their amazing work. But while I fully support the released Cut, it’s also no secret that I tried to get a subsequent version released, which Marty Scorsese very graciously helped with, which even more fully executes my complete intentions—a cut that I still hope will someday, somehow see the light of day.” (Fans of irony will note that Lonergan was a screenwriter on Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, a movie that by some accounts was gutted when Scorsese gave in to pressure to edit it down.)

Is the three-hour-plus “extended cut” on the new DVD that “subsequent version”? It depends whom you ask, and when you ask them. The lengthy and generally comprehensive Times Magazine account of the film’s troubles was maddeningly imprecise on the subject, and in a more recent interview with Indiewire, Lonergan was equivocal: “This is the detailed version as opposed to the suggestive version,” he said. “Which one is better filmmaking? I really don’t feel qualified to say.”

There is, of course, more detail in the extended cut: more fighting between teenage Lisa (Anna Paquin) and her mother, Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), a theater actress single-parenting two children on Manhattan’s Upper West Side; more awkward dating between Joan and Jean Reno’s South American businessman; a subplot in which Lisa works behind the scenes of a high-school theater production, one of the film’s many references to narrative art. In the theatrical cut, when Lisa confronts a lover with the news that she’s just had an abortion, it comes out of the blue, leaving the audience to wonder whether she’s invented the abortion to get his attention or throw him off-center; in the extended cut, she takes a pregnancy test and then heads to a clinic, removing any doubt as to the truth of her statement, if not entirely revealing her reasons for blurting it out. But Margaret’s extended cut is not simply a longer, more fleshed-out version of the film that screened in theaters. It is, as Lonergan surely knows, a wilder, more daring work of art, an unruly masterpiece rather than a tidied-up sprawl.

At the center of both versions is Lisa’s attempt to make sense of the accident she helped cause by distracting a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) who sailed through a red light and flattened a pedestrian (Allison Janney in a brief but unforgettable role). Although Lisa knows the bus driver was partly responsible, she initially lies to the police about his —and her—culpability, and spends the rest of the movie trying to undo her lie. When the police, eager to move on to other cases, resist her attempts to have the bus driver criminally charged, she moves her case to civil court, joining up with the dead woman’s best friend, Emily (Jeannie Berlin), and enlisting her estranged cousin as a shadow plaintiff.

But to reduce Margaret to its plot is, as Lonergan found in the editing room, “to murder it.” The movie keeps pulling away from its ostensible heroine, taking up other characters and other stories, though Lisa understands them as adjuncts to her own. There’s a substantial dose of adolescent narcissism in her actions, a charge Emily levels at her in a tirade whose pent-up fury catches both Lisa and the audience off-guard. “This is not an opera,” she screams. “We are not all supporting characters in the fascinating story of your life!” Margaret is Lisa’s story, even if it takes its title from the Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem “Spring and Fall: to a young child.” (Lisa would have been a lousy movie title.) But it’s ambivalent about its protagonist, or about the very existence of protagonists, even as it recognizes them as an elemental building block of drama.

As much as Margaret puts Lisa through the wringer, the movie sees something noble and even necessary in her attempt to turn her life into a story, one in which she can both accept responsibility and assign it. Telling stories is how we make sense of the amoral chaos of the world, and how we survive it. It gives meaning to random tragedy—this accident happened because I caused it—and instills order where there is none. It’s egocentric, perhaps, but it’s how we get by. It’s hardly accidental that one of the movie’s pithiest scenes involves a classroom debate over King Lear, whose characters must reckon with the notion that the gods, if they exist at all, are cruel and capricious.

Although Margaret’s years on the editing-room shelf have dulled its topical resonance, it’s inevitably, and deliberately, a film made in the shadows of the 9/11 attacks, when any jetliner drifting across the city sky conjured thoughts of thousands dead. Lisa and her classmates struggle with what, if any, meaning to attach to the terrorist attacks: Are they a response to U.S. foreign policy, or simply the work of “monsters”? The movie’s lengthy pans across milling crowds and towering skyscrapers—accompanied in the extended cut by operatic arias—put Lisa’s story in the context of Manhattan’s millions, but also serve as a reminder that those buildings, which once seemed indestructible, sometimes fall.

In the extended cut, the long shots of crowds and buildings that led New Yorker critic Richard Brody to dub Margaret a “city symphony” are also accompanied by stray fragments of conversation that seem at first to leap out of nowhere, as if something were awry with the film’s sound mix. But it soon becomes clear that these disembodied voices are part of Lonergan’s design, mimicking the effect of overhearing a tantalizing snippet of conversation in a crowd and wondering who said that, and why? Comments present but easily missed or ignored in the theatrical cut jump out of the scrum. The extended cut trains us to listen for gems like this one, overheard at an airport taxi stand: “OK, so Ground Zero, and then we’ll meet you guys at the theater.” A few years on, and the site of a national tragedy has become something you squeeze in before a matinée of The Producers.

In a scene restored to the extended cut, Lisa and her would-be boyfriend (The Newsroom’s John Gallagher Jr.) grab a meal at a diner, where she essentially tells him she doesn’t like him like that. Rather than stage the scene in a conventional two-shot, Lonergan begins with a high angle that suggests the P.O.V. of a security camera, zooming slowly in from across the room. Although the two are clearly engaged in conversation, their voices are drowned out by the clatter around them; for more than a minute, all we can make out are half-finished sentences. The execution is, frankly, a little rough, as if Lonergan didn’t have the money to give the extended cut’s soundtrack a final polish, but the concept is powerful, a radical realization of an idea the theatrical cut only hints at—namely that Lisa’s story, or any story, is only one torn from the maelstrom of stories swirling through the city, and that focusing on this one story both creates meaning and destroys it.

Lonergan is right that two Margarets are better than one; the versions are complementary, enriching each other and suggesting that longing for a definitive version of such an elusive, protean work may be beside the point. Much as I prefer the more audacious, all-encompassing extended cut, certain moments work better when left open-ended. (I’d rather we didn’t know if Lisa’s lying when she says she’s had an abortion.) In truth, neither is complete: The theatrical cut feels truncated and comparatively cautious, the extended version rough-hewn. But perhaps that’s how it should be. Although it closes with a powerful reconciliation—staged, naturally, in an opera house—Margaret is a reminder that stories are never finished, especially the ones we tell about ourselves.