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."
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":