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This review is based on the 150-minute theatrical cut of the film.

In 2000, Kenneth Lonergan came out of nowhere with the directorial debut You Can Count on Me. It was one of those extremely rare films that didn't have any gimmicks or stylistic touches up its sleeve. It was purely about the characters, and they informed every aspect of the narrative, much like the great films of British director Mike Leigh. Though the movie appeared simple on the surface, I had this impression that Lonergan was holding back on some big ideas in service of the story at hand. If he showed some restraint with his first film, Margaret is Lonergan going for broke. It turns out that can be a good and bad thing.

Margaret
The film follows Lisa (Anna Paquin), a smart but outspoken and careless high schooler in Manhattan. One day while out looking for a cowboy hat to purchase, she notices a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) wearing one. She tries to get his attention to ask him where he got the hat as he drives off. She follows the bus, waving to him and distracting him. In the process, he runs a red light and collides with a pedestrian (Allison Janey). The experience leaves her in shock, and she finds herself wanting to help out however she can as she struggles with her transition into adult life. If my plot description got a bit broad at the end, its because the movie branches out into an almost inconceivable amount of subplots and side characters.

The film was actually made in 2005, and then it was originally slated for a 2007 release, but editing difficulties, financial disputes and even lawsuits kept the project from being finished until last year. I'm sad to admit it, but you can feel the tumultuous assembly process when watching the film. There are some jarring continuity errors, but even if you can ignore those the film's pacing still feels really rough and the runtime bloated. When the film was over I tried to hone in on what it had to say. Out of everything the film examines, what comes through the most strongly is the message about how we personalize our experiences with suffering, even when we don't know a person who died. People have a tendency to gravitate toward tragedy and find self-importance through it. In the film's best scene, Lisa starts personalizing the death of the stranger to the stranger's best friend (Jeannie Berlin), and she is not having it. She snaps on Lisa and gives her a dose of realism. It rings true and Lonergan's passionate script shines here more than anywhere else.

Margaret
In its simplest form, Margaret is a coming of age story with a lot of growing pains. There's also commentary on the disconnect between family members and the ways we can hurt other people without realizing it. There's mother/daughter relationship strain, inappropriate affairs, political and racial debates, adolescent romance and some examination on alienation. A little bit of everything. There are scenes of students debating passionately over 9/11 that feel oddly dated. Perhaps in 2005 it would have resonated more. It never feels like it meshes into the character exploration or any of the movie's multiple themes. All these different ideas make up a significant chunk of the runtime, but it feels like the writing only skims the surface of each idea. The extended director's cut slightly improves on branching some ideas out a bit more, but it still could use a lot of tightening up. Lonergan was no doubt attempting to make a bold tapestry, but a lot of the thematic threads feel extraneous and if there was a big picture that tied them altogether aside from them all happening to the same character, it was lost on me.

Narrative gripes aside, I still find it difficult not to admire Margaret for its lofty ambitions and complex world view. There's also some amazing on-screen talent from an ensemble of terrific actors. The characters can be beyond abrasive. More than once I found myself wishing everyone in a scene could just grow up and stop being so touchy about everything. But Anna Paquin is award-worthy, and the scenes between her and her mother (J. Smith-Cameron) are masterfully written and performed, even if I never want to share a room with the characters. There are many terrific dramatic scenes in the film that make it worth seeing, but their power is sadly hampered by ideas that feel incomplete. I still strongly suggest seeing Margaret at least once. It's challenging and complex for a drama of its type, and I'm still digesting it and working out my own conflicted emotions toward it hours after watching it. For better or worse, it sticks with you.

Margaret

Video


Margaret looks good enough in this 1080p transfer from Fox. It was shot on 35 mm and has a very natural color scheme that is perhaps a bit desaturated at times. There aren't a lot of colors that bring life to the image, and most of the movie takes place in gloomy outdoor scenes or dark interiors. As a result, the image never really pops in a way that the Blu-ray format can take full advantage of. Black levels are relatively good and certainly better than the accompanying DVD version of the film. Grain is light, but always consistent and visible. Detail isn't particularly strong, but it's clear that you're looking at an HD image. I couldn't help but feel like I was watching an older movie. Sure it was filmed in 2005, but the transfer resembled what I would expect from something made in the 90's, like a catalogue release. There's also some occasional camera wobble and a handful of damage marks on the transfer, but I never noticed any harsh digital artefacts, so it is a well encoded disc. I wasn't able to take full-resolution screen caps at the time of this review, but hopefully I can add some later.

Audio


Margaret's ambitions lie more with its characters than its production quality, but this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track has some real surprises in store. One of the film's most consistent delights is composer Nico Muhly score fast but delicately played string instruments and other classic compositions that bring a lot of gravity and spine-tingling effect to the sound scape. The music fills all of the front channels nicely. A lot of the musical cues are very loud and riveting. It sounds terrific. Surround speakers are used appropriately in scenes that take place outdoors. There's a lot of ambient chatter and footsteps, and you can hear some cars passing by from one side of the room to the other. Some indoor scenes even have subtle noises going on outside, as the characters live in Manhattan. Dialogue is good and loud, with lots of shouting matches that come across in their full intensity. In a couple occurances dialogue can be a bit hard to make out due to environmental effect, but its nothing major and the disc does have an English SDH subtitle option. The bus accident that the film centers around is appropriately harrowing, making use of the LFE channel and a lot of surrounding noises of dread and disbelief from onlookers. The sound mix really steps it up and gives the scene a more unsettling impact.

Margaret

Extras


The only extra is the extended cut of the film, which is 186 minutes long and only available in standard definition on a DVD. I'm not sure that should even qualify as an extra. The theatrical cut already felt bloated to me, and the additional half-hour of material didn't change my mind. Some of the subplots are more fleshed out and resolved, but the structural issues remain. I particularly liked getting to see more of the relationship between Lisa's mother and Jean Reno's character. It's nice that Lonergan's version gets to see the light of day, but it is unfortunate that both cuts aren't available in high-definition, as I'm sure fans will appreciate aspects of both cuts.

Margaret

Overall


The woes of its infamous post-production are evident in the final product, but Margaret is practically bursting at the seems with passion and interesting ideas that make up for most of its bumpy narrative. It's never as consistent as You Can Count on Me, but it showcases a more ambitious side of Lonergan's complex view of human relationships. The Blu-ray has a reasonably good video presentation and an audio track with some surprising immersion. The only extra is the extended cut of the film on a DVD, but fans will want to give it their time.


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