Anna Paquin first came to my attention back in the early '00s in the Spike Lee joint, The 25th Hour. Playing Mary, a high school student with an attitude, she flirts with Phillip Seymour Hoffman amidst fighting for better grades because she believed her essay was far better than the ones that got an A. It’s a standout role in an excellent film that was notable for its reference to 9/11, a reflection of the protagonist Monty trying to work out what to do in the remaining twenty-five hours before he is admitted into prison for drug dealing. Margaret is a similar opportunity for Paquin. She’s playing the role of Lisa Cohen, a high schooler trying to figure out her place in life that has more than a few shades of 25th’s Mary. Apparently shot back as early as 2005 and delayed since due to director Kenneth Lonergan’s inability to be happy with any of the prints (he had right of final cut) the film is an awkward release for now considering Paquin is 29 now and we’re watching her playing a 17 year-old. (It’s also confusing to see Olivia Thirlby of The Wackness in such a brief role and Krysten Ritter in a non-speaking role, but maybe I’m just one of the few who actually picked up on that.)
Lisa is out touring the streets to buy a cowboy hat so she can enjoy time with her father (her parents are divorced) at a ranch in New Mexico and she can’t find the one she’s after. Walking out of a store she notices a bus pulling away from the kerb whose driver (the always understated Mark Ruffalo) is wearing the very hat that she’s after. Trying to wave him down so she can ask him where he got it from, he tries to wave her away and ignore her but eventually understands what she’s trying to do and in an attempt to get rid of her he takes his eyes off the road, runs a red light and kills a woman as she crosses the road. It’s an everyday occurrence and what Lonergan does with this horrific accident is explore how it truly affects those involved and everyone else connected through the consequent branches.
Here is where it becomes confused. Apparently the theatrical cut was partly the work of Martin Scorcese (and one assumes Thelma Schoonmaker) who then encouraged Lonergan to release this cut or risk it going to movie heaven forever only seen by a privileged few. Having already faced numerous studio lawsuits and even resorting to asking Matthew Broderick, who stars in the film as Lisa’s teacher, for cash to assist with new edits, the history of Margaret is a long and law-riddled one which may assist in explaining the multiple storyline threads that it offers. To note – apparently there’s an 186 minute directors cut readied for when it drops on disc later in the year.
The current theatrical cut is 150 minutes and it appears as if this story originated with a group of multi-character vignettes but was reconciled to just a minor few as a lot of sub plots build pace but don’t end with anything substantial.Paquin is excellent in the role – this is without question – however to put up with her constanting teenage ranting for so long does become dull and tiresome by the third act, if it could be labelled as such. This may sound like complicated reasoning and perhaps it is but the tension that builds within her as she tries to reason with being partly responsible for the woman’s death turns her into something else entirely.
She deserves all the awards, no doubt, however I didn’t particularly find solace with her character even if she finally does utter the words “I fucking killed her” into the speakerphone with panicked, uncontrollable horror. Michael Fassbender recently showed us something similar in Shame, the story of a man struggling to cope with his addiction to sex and internet porn. If his is a more restrained, nuanced performance that speaks volumes with every tiny movement then Paquin’s is thrash metal at full volume. She screams her way through every scene and treats her mother awfully. Writing this, I try to reason that she’s just doing what every teenager does – think they know everything – but even still it’s not enough to win me over.
Similarly for the best friend of the victim, Emily, played by Jeannie Berlin. Emily is one of the most unlikeable characters of recent times, and in a bad way. She snarls her way through every scene and is unreasonably, dare I say, bitchy to everyone she comes across. By the end of the film I was rolling my eyes every time she entered the scene.
Where the film does succeed though is through Broderick and Matt Damon in a much more appealing role that doesn’t require him to be Hollywood Matt Damon, as is the standard these days. They’re both fatally flawed characters that make life-changing mistakes (or realisations), an obvious nod to Lisa’s own path that provide breathing space from the unlikeable intensity of Lisa and Emily.
I will admit, I am interested in seeing a three hour cut of a film that even at two and a half hours manages to feel both too short and too long. Fascinating stuff for all the films buffs out there and Paquin is outstanding but it’s not enough to win me over completely. There’s a lot to this film that I’m unable to cover within the medium of a film review but needless to say, it’s not particularly great.
[rating=3] and a half stars.
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Margaret is released nationally on June 14.