Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Berlin Review: With 'Midnight Special,' Jeff Nichols Offers Up a Very Special Sci-Fi Thriller Berlin Review: With 'Midnight Special,' Jeff Nichols Offers Up a Very Special Sci-Fi Thriller How They Designed the Characters and Sounds for the Oscar-Nominated 'Mad Max: Fury Road' How They Designed the Characters and Sounds for the Oscar-Nominated 'Mad Max: Fury Road' Meryl Streep to Fund The Writers Lab, Supporting Women Screenwriters Over 40 (EXCLUSIVE) Meryl Streep to Fund The Writers Lab, Supporting Women Screenwriters Over 40 (EXCLUSIVE) Oscar Predictions 2016 Oscar Predictions 2016 Roger Deakins on Shooting Hollywood From the Inside Out in 'Hail, Caesar!' (Video) Roger Deakins on Shooting Hollywood From the Inside Out in 'Hail, Caesar!' (Video) A Letter to Michael B. Jordan A Letter to Michael B. Jordan Bona Fide Acquires Movie Rights to Knausgaard New York Times Series 'My Saga' for Alexander Payne (EXCLUSIVE) Bona Fide Acquires Movie Rights to Knausgaard New York Times Series 'My Saga' for Alexander Payne (EXCLUSIVE) WATCH: 9 Oscar-Nominated Screenwriters on How They Got Their Start, Their Writing Process, and Much More WATCH: 9 Oscar-Nominated Screenwriters on How They Got Their Start, Their Writing Process, and Much More Inside the Oscar Nominees Lunch Inside the Oscar Nominees Lunch How John Ridley and Company Create the Emotional Resonance of 'American Crime' How John Ridley and Company Create the Emotional Resonance of 'American Crime' Top 10 Takeaways:  'Hail, Caesar!' Leads Three New Releases—Which Barely Total $20 Million Top 10 Takeaways: 'Hail, Caesar!' Leads Three New Releases—Which Barely Total $20 Million 'Deadpool' Review & Roundup: Ryan Reynolds Finds a Franchise Worthy of His Talents 'Deadpool' Review & Roundup: Ryan Reynolds Finds a Franchise Worthy of His Talents Arthouse Audit: 'The Club' and 'Rams' Reveal Weakness in Subtitled Film Market Arthouse Audit: 'The Club' and 'Rams' Reveal Weakness in Subtitled Film Market Inside the Directors Guild Awards Inside the Directors Guild Awards Joel & Ethan Coen Crack Each Other Up, And Me, Talking About 'Hail, Caesar!' Joel & Ethan Coen Crack Each Other Up, And Me, Talking About 'Hail, Caesar!' Why George Miller Should Win DGA Award and Directing Oscar for 'Mad Max: Fury Road' Why George Miller Should Win DGA Award and Directing Oscar for 'Mad Max: Fury Road' WATCH: Oscar Nominee Tom Hardy Explains Why Shooting 'The Revenant' Was So Bloody Hard (EXCLUSIVE VIDEO) WATCH: Oscar Nominee Tom Hardy Explains Why Shooting 'The Revenant' Was So Bloody Hard (EXCLUSIVE VIDEO) How They Created the Bear VFX for the Mauling of Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Revenant' How They Created the Bear VFX for the Mauling of Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Revenant' How Quentin Tarantino Resurrected Ultra Panavision 70 for 'The Hateful Eight' How Quentin Tarantino Resurrected Ultra Panavision 70 for 'The Hateful Eight' What Happened to Scorsese's $70-Million Short 'The Audition' Starring DiCaprio, De Niro and Pitt? What Happened to Scorsese's $70-Million Short 'The Audition' Starring DiCaprio, De Niro and Pitt?

Now and Then: The Extraordinary Kenneth Lonergan, 'Margaret' & 'You Can Count on Me'

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! July 10, 2012 at 3:15PM

Rare are squabbles over production and distribution as fraught as those that accompanied the long gestation and brief theatrical life of Kenneth Lonergan's second feature. It would seem that a film must be something special to elicit such strong feelings, and "Margaret" is that film and then some. It's extraordinary.
0
Matt Damon and Anna Paquin in "Margaret"
Matt Damon and Anna Paquin in "Margaret"

Rarely are squabbles over production and distribution as fraught as those that accompanied the long gestation and brief theatrical life of Kenneth Lonergan's second feature. It would seem that a film must be something special to elicit such strong feelings, and "Margaret" is that film and then some. It's extraordinary.  

Somehow, the film manages to combine high literary erudition — allusions to Gerard Manley Hopkins, "The Magic Flute," off-Broadway drama — with the rough poetic alchemy of everyday speech. In the classroom, on the couch, at the street corner, "Margaret" nails the zigzagging nature of human interaction, its strange and sometimes willful brew of anxiety, honesty, flirtation, wary diffidence and preening. This would be enough to mark it as original, skillful work, but the harmony of these strands comes to be symphonic, one amplifying the other, until Lonergan's film becomes a complicated portrait of the various forms of grief — individual, collective, self-reflexive.

Within the first few minutes, the film is set in motion: Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), a sharp, offbeat student at a tony New York high school not long after 9/11, witnesses a terrible bus accident, and cradles a dying woman's head in her arms. Beset by guilt — she was distracting the driver at the time of the crash — Lisa jumps headfirst into a downward spiral, dragging everyone in her orbit along with her. "Margaret" suggests a deeply misanthropic view of the world, one in which dark happenings threaten to overwhelm better angels. In some ways, it is as much a "9/11 film" as "United 93" or "World Trade Center," asking what life means when death can come so suddenly, and with so little clarity of meaning. Lisa has her answer. "None of it matters," she tells her mother (J. Smith-Cameron) during an argument. "None of it matters at all."

Messy and melodramatic, languidly paced yet somehow frantic in tone, "Margaret" is not a perfect film, but it is undoubtedly a great one. What's so bleakly compelling about it is the facility it shows in combining a very specific kind of grief — Lisa's mournful sense of the difficulties of adulthood, of the prospect of one day dying — with a larger grief about the increasingly terrifying, inexplicable world we seem to inhabit. It is the best expression I know of the lines from Hopkins from which it takes its name: "It is the blight man was born for / It is Margaret you mourn for."       

Laura Linney (with Mark Ruffalo) in "You Can Count on Me"
Laura Linney (with Mark Ruffalo) in "You Can Count on Me"


Lonergan's debut, "You Can Count on Me" (2000) is the more acutely observed work; the emotional stakes are lower, but it still manages a simple, unmannered poignancy. I don't think it's hyperbolic to call it the standard-bearer of contemporary American realist cinema.

The story is, like the language of "Margaret," gleaned from the rhythms of the day-to-day: a prodigal son, Terry, played with roguish charm by the aptly named Mark Ruffalo, returns home from a life of aimless drifting to visit his sister, Sammy (Laura Linney), a single mother and loan officer in a small village in upstate New York. Their parents died in a car accident when they were children, and they love each other deeply, but that's where the similarities end. He's laissez-faire, taking his nephew to shoot pool in a local watering hole; she is, for a time at least, abundantly careful, afraid to make waves in her placid life.

Nothing much happens by way of blowout arguments and lessons learned, which is the film's true genius — without allowing the story to flag, "You Can Count on Me" chooses to investigate its characters instead of "developing" them, diving into a slice of middle-class life and emerging not with resolution but a kind of détente. Its slow burn of niggling resentments and personality clashes feels exactly right for family drama, revelatory for being so uncommon in movies. It is easy to imagine Sammy and Terry as your neighbors, people you nod at in the supermarket aisle or wave to from across the street.

Lonergan, a playwright by trade, builds a wholly convincing world from rust and scrapmetal. It's not fancy or shiny by any means, but each moment arrives as if foreordained. When Sammy embarks on an ill-conceived affair with her married boss, or knocks a lamp off her bedside table in frustration, it may at first seem out of character, until you realize this reckless streak has been there all along; Lonergan is, if nothing else, a master of the quiet, piece-by-piece construction of life, and by the end of the film each shred of information or emotion has cohered into a human being as close to real as it's possible to get from the other side of a movie screen.

"Margaret" amps up all of these tendencies, and even threatens to combust — it's a fascinating but fretful picture, full of loose ends and frayed edges. "You Can Count on Me," though never as clean and smooth as the movies usually imagine life to be, has an easy, lively precision and leaves a strong impression despite its smallness. With opposing approaches and similar DNA, both films do what the old theorists said, reflecting back tales for every viewer with a teacher, a sibling, a friend, a kid, a job, a lover, a sadness, a place to call "home." Which is to say they're films for everyone, full stop.  

Both the extended and theatrical cuts of "Margaret" are available today on Blu-ray/DVD ($27.99) or VOD ($14.99) from Amazon. "You Can Count on Me" is available on DVD from Netflix.

Also check out the 8-degrees of "Margaret":

This article is related to: DVD and VOD, DVDs, Kenneth Lonergan, Margaret, Features


E-Mail Updates






Festivals on TOH



Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.