(Kenneth Lonergan, 2011)
Alongside all of its other qualities and its flaws, Kenneth Lonergan's second film, the contemporary drama Margaret, does something few films even attempt. It tries to portray a consciousness on film, in the form of a character study so deep and searching that it addresses the very concept of "the self" in all its contradictory and bewildering complexity. Anna Paquin's Lisa is a self-conscious, precocious teenager from the Upper West Side of Manhattan who is very slightly responsible for the death of a woman in a traffic accident. Traumatised by this incident - the accident and it's aftermath are portrayed with vividly brutal impact by Lonergan - Lisa sets about trying to shed some of the guilt she feels, and in the process, almost casually damages the lives of various people around her.
Margaret is much more than this, however. It is also a song of the city, a polyphonic study of bourgeois Manhattan in the years after 9/11, a study of moral equivalency, and a consistently high-minded piece of work which makes explicit reference to Shakespeare, Opera and poetry (the title comes from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem) while beautifully specialising in long scenes where hyper-articulate, particularly literate characters struggle to express themselves, pointing up the fact that another theme here is the inability of people to connect and relate to one another in the modern world.
All of that might sound a little indigestible or pretentious, but it never plays that way. Lonergan is such a gifted, skillful dramatist that his scenes and characters are almost intrinsically arresting and true, and he consistently creates interesting scenarios which play out in surprising and intriguing ways. This is so obvious because the material and setting are familiar from dozens of films and novels, but Lonergan's approach is never remotely generic, even when dealing with story lines as cliched as some of the many that unfold during Margaret's near two and a half hour running time. For example, Lisa's relationships with two young men - the stuff of a hundred teen comedies and indie dramas - play out as confused, selfish collisions full of confusion and misunderstanding on both sides, casually heartbreaking, funny and silly expressions of her solipsism and selfishness on one hand, but authentically replicate the mixture of casual and earth-shatteringly important crucial to adolescent romance. It helps that the film is elliptical, somewhat enigmatic (though how much of that is down to the film's long history of difficulty in the editing room may be a worthwhile debate) and given to flights of visual poetry when it surveys the city's streets and skyline, sometimes in slow motion.
Visually, Lonergan generally sticks to an unobtrusive classical style, but his storytelling is strong, and he trusts his estimable cast to do his fine script justice. They more than deliver, with Paquin magnificent in the lead, making us care about a character who is often thoroughly unlikable. With stars like Mark Ruffalo and Matt Damon solid in smaller roles , it's less celebrated actresses like Jeannie Berlin and J. Smith Cameron who excel alongside Paquin. Lonergan seems to write nothing but great characters, though, with most every role of substance given shades, depth, a personality, one of the qualities which really elevates Margaret above other dramas. Lisa's mother, for instance, is given enough scenes to be regarded as a lead in her own right, as Lonergan records her new relationship with a Colombian man (Jean Reno, slightly miscast in an odd mis-step), her nervousness about the opening of her new play, and her difficulties as a single mother. Even the briefest character moments are perfectly weighted by Lonergan; with Damon's despairing self-criticism following an encounter with Lisa humanising his character in a way nothing else had. So many voices crowd the canvas here, and the breadth of the films scope is echoed by the sound design, which often allows the conversations of strangers and passers-by to bleed into the mix and emphasise the press of humanity in the city.
There are flaws here, and some may find it overlong and a little too obvious at times, but I think Lonergan is a major artist, with ambition, vision and a uniquely-defined voice, and nobody else is making films quite like this one at present. This is American cinema as art, yet there is great entertainment to be had here, in a film which is accessible, complex, provocative and finally, quite stunning.