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Art Zone @ The Movies: Margaret’s Blessed Mess

Bless This Mess

Margaret, Dir. Kenneth Lonergan
Now Playing at SIFF Cinema

You Can Count on Me, the Oscar-nominated 2000 directorial debut of playwright Kenneth Lonergan, was a marvel in miniature:  a brilliantly acted, acutely rendered character study that displayed a firm grasp of what to leave unsaid. Margaret, Lonergan’s follow-up, unfortunately accrued some legendarily bad mojo on its way to the screen. Originally shot in 2006, the footage collected dust on the shelf as the director and producer waged a legal war over the length of the final cut, with various running times reportedly ranging from 90 minutes to over four hours. Now finally granted release in 150 minute form (Martin Scorsese apparently lent an uncredited editorial hand), the resulting film is a truly odd experience: a sweepingly expansive post 9-11 reflection that is beautiful and frustrating and insightful and unfocused, sometimes all in the very same scene. I can’t stop thinking about it.

MargaretThe story follows the wobbly trajectory of Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin), a privileged Upper West Side teenager whose combination of calculated disdain and vulnerability serve to flummox both her mother (J. Smith Cameron, Lonergan’s real-life wife) and teachers (including a still-dewy Matt Damon).  After she inadvertently contributes to a horrific traffic accident, Lisa finds her carefully constructed universe imploding, with her guilt leading her on a self-serving crusade against the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) involved in the crash. Any capsule plot description, though, is really only scratching the surface of the filmmaker’s ambition, which combines pungent observations about education and art and performing and racism and the absurdities of the legal system into a heady, sometimes baffling stew. (The title of the film, taken from a Gerard Manly Hopkins poem, should serve as an indicator that the movie is aiming for the intellectual upper decks.)

Great movies are rarely perfect movies, to steal a line from Pauline Kael, and Margaret certainly qualifies for at least the latter category. Not to sympathize too much with the studio folks, but there are some notable flaws present here — most notably some shaky staging, and the relative unlikeability of the majority of the characters — that would rankle regardless of the film’s length. For all of its problems, however, Lonergan’s crazily overstuffed vision contains so many moments that feel just so perfectly, dead-solid right that it makes virtually everything else out there seem safe and toothless in comparison.  Grand folly, or unjustly truncated masterpiece? Both, maybe.


Also opening this week: Liam Neeson dukes it out with wolves in the existential action movie The Grey (Check out my review for the Portland Mercury), and the dopey but fun thriller Man on a Ledge, which I wrote up for Amazon.com.


Questions? Comments? Gerard Manly Hopkins knock knock jokes? Let me know at alwright@gmail.com