Here’s an ethics question for everyone: Would you do something wrong (read: bend the truth or just flat-out lie) to save your own hide or someone else’s because in the long run you know it’s a decision for the greater good? The film Margaret attempts to answer that in a very nebulous manner. In some ways it’s a modern and ethically grey (messed up is more appropriate) fable, but the story goes to show that not only can a wrong decision have unintended consequences, those ripples can go farther than you’d ever imagine. More importantly, somethings can never ever be undone or taken back.
Margaret is the story of Lisa, a 17 year old girl who, like most kids are at that age, is yearning for something else beyond the confines of her home and school. Conflicted between book smarts and street smarts, Lisa looks at the world in a way where the former most certainly seems to trump the latter. As bright as she believes she is, she still makes lots of poor choices. The coup de grace of poor choices is when Lisa inadvertently distracts a bus driver who in turn fatally claims a woman’s life in a traffic accident. Not wanting the driver’s family to suffer the consequences of him getting fired or worse, put in prison, she lies on her police statement and the bus driver is free of any charges. But little by little Lisa realizes she should have told the truth and goes to great pains to make the driver pay for what he’s done.
Beyond the “what would you do in that situation?” approach, what Margaret really has going for it are some very real performances. The characters and the actors portraying them deal with issues that are free of Hollywood pretenses or theatrical personas. Set in the years following 9/11 the backdrop feels like 70’s New York City as Margaret is set in a world far from the now commercialized and tourism laden Big Apple.
Anna Paquin, playing Lisa, especially takes center stage. At home she emotionally clashes with her family and at school she antagonizes her classmates in rousing debates and class lectures. In both venues all characters come across honest and that is refreshing to see. However it seems no place is a refuge for Lisa and she lashes out at anyone and everyone. She is the loudest character and confident character in the film and she verbally and emotionally brutalizes everyone either subtly or in an overly cocky tone. However, it’s really just a front because she feels incapable of revealing what’s eating her. Also, she’s trying to hide the fact that she’s really just troubled, awkward, rebellious, confused and worrisome. Man, after seeing this I can honestly say I’m glad I’m not a teenager anymore.
Anna Paquin is astounding in her reactions and multiple outbursts but the real downside is that Margaret is a mess of a film. It meanders waaaay too much and shifts focus back and forth between characters that take focus away from Lisa which detract from her development. Drifting back and forth between supporting characters it constantly kills momentum. And the sloppy editing (many scenes where evidence of re-shoots are blatantly apparent) don’t help much either. There are no heroes here and everyone is broken, pretty apathetic and unsavory to say the least. If you find yourself not caring (or wanting to care) that’s probably the point.
But when the film finally gets rolling (way past the half way mark I might add) it does get interesting. To atone for lying on her police statement, Lisa reaches out to the bus victim’s oldest friend Emily. After some grieving the two are convinced they should legally go after the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo). Seems like everyone in NYC is friends with a “very good lawyer” and we meet Emily’s. There are some speedy exposition scenes that tell us what the law really is in the case of the accident and the rules of the justice system that might allow Lisa and Emily to charge Mark Ruffalo’s character for his crime. It starts to become an out-of-the-court courtroom drama and culminates in one of the most emotional and fantastic performances that Paquin gives in the whole film. It’s a stunner to say the least.
Again though, Margaret ends up being too long for what it set out to do and again I fault the uneven editing which just doesn’t help the labored story. The performances are highly impressive but the meandering story starts to wear on you. I don’t mind something being 149 minutes if there’s enough to fill it but here, they could have easily had an hour trimmed out and the movie would have had the same impact. Mainly, this is all about Lisa but the audience might find it hard to find compassion for someone who continually makes the wrong decisions for herself. Further you get about as frustrated as Lisa’s mother finding that Lisa, simply put, is impossible to deal with. The attempts to show Lisa as irrational due to her conflicting conscience is probably well intentioned but she comes across as some dumb teenager who after shooting herself in the foot seems to be content with firing another round into her other foot. How can you sympathize with that?
So in all of the nearly 3 hours of melodrama some of you might wonder “where does the title Margaret come from”? Well it’s taken from the poem“Spring and Fall: To a Young Child” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Look it up…it’s a thoughtful piece and you can see how it influences the narrative of the film but Margaret doesn’t come across with the impact of the poem. A long time in the making, this Kenneth Lonergan written/directed (produced by Sydney Pollack and at one time Martin Scorsese had a hand in it) is what some are calling an allegory to 9/11. Not sure I’d say the entire movie fits that bill but some of the film certainly does. The film’s final scene of Lisa and her mother attending an opera might just sum up the film; it’s tragedy. Since they don’t sell very well it’s easy to see why a film like this doesn’t get made very often.
All in all, Margaret can be tough to take (whether its the issues explored or the running time I still can’t tell) and needlessly drawn out at times but I enjoyed it and would likely see it again. Liken it to Requiem For A Dream in the way it is unsettling but the acting is nearly exceptional. Make no mistake, Margaret may not be pleasant or desirable as a whole but individual parts just sing; namely Paquin. Margaret is a powerful, complicated film about fractured moral consciousness and in the muddy moral/ethic exercise, if you take nothing else from it you will find that Anna Paquin is riveting. A powder keg of intensity, her performance is raw and mesmerizing. Too bad those stunning performances weren’t put to use in a better movie.