Choices and chaos
What might have ended up as a neat, well-acted monograph on the discontents of adolescence ultimately loses its way, writes Donald Clarke
IF YOU WEREN’T already aware of the kerfuffle surrounding the release of Kenneth Lonergan’s rambling, baggy drama, you might be tipped off when the characters take a trip to the cinema. Among the movies playing are such 2005 releases as Serenity and Flight Plan. The world has ended several times since Margaret’s wrap party.
Lonergan, director of You Can Count on Me, ended up in a murky squabble (punctuated by lawsuits) concerning the length of the final cut. When the current version, clocking in at a super-sized 150 minutes, finally reached US critics, many celebrated it as a misused masterpiece.
It’s not quite that: too often the film’s reach exceeds its grasp. But Margaret (named, somewhat pompously, for a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem) exhibits levels of
grit and ambition that you rarely encounter in contemporary cinema.
Anna Paquin plays a pampered, precious Manhattan teen named Lisa Cohen. We see her cheating on her maths exam. We watch as, in half-bright, quasi-coherent fashion, she squabbles with classmates about responses to 9/11 (a whole half-decade more recent then, remember).
After a tad more fleshing out, the film finds Lisa joshing with a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) as he approaches a busy street corner. Distracted, he breaks the red light and fatally injures a middle-aged woman (Allison Janney). An increasingly messy narrative spiral then spins out from this fulcrum. Should Lisa ruin the driver’s career by telling the truth? What responsibilities does she have towards the dead woman’s family?
While all these deliberations are taking place, Lonergan finds time to detail Lisa’s awkward advances towards a cool kid (Kieran Culkin) as well as her mother’s romance with a strange Colombian businessman (a notably French Jean Reno).
One unforeseen consequence of the delays surrounding the film’s release is that, in Ireland at least, it emerges at much the same time as Stephen Daldry’s unsatisfactory Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. There are faintly eerie similarities between the projects. Both involve precocious, deeply annoying young people travelling through New York while they try to process a recent tragedy. Both protagonists snap ruthlessly at their unfortunate single mothers. Both films are concerned ( Margaret less explicitly) with the attacks of 9/11.
The Lonergan piece is, however, by far the more impressive work. Rather than resorting to sentimentality, the writer/director favours an ugly pseudo-realism that invests every scene with a slightly nauseous edge.
Paquin is to be congratulated for, with admirable lack of vanity, making an impressively irritating little squirt of Lisa. Even before she encounters her life-changing trauma, she is revealed to be manipulative and self-absorbed. Yet Paquin squeezes out enough vulnerability to confirm that she is still a victim of unsettled hormones.
The adults behave just as badly – mom (J Smith-cameron) initially dismisses Lisa’s plan to change her testimony – but shield their compromises behind the fragile façade of maturity.
What we might have ended up with is a neat, well-acted monograph on the discontents of adolescence. Unfortunately, Lonergan has buried that pamphlet in a 19th-century epic of positively Russian proportions. Some of the subplots seem unnecessary. The copious shots of buildings, skylines and commuters feel like meretricious padding. The final half-hour descends into a class of hysteria that seems as inauthentic as it is hard on the ears.
Yet, this is one of those works – though the studio allegedly thought differently – whose flaws add to its undeniable appeal. One thinks of those vintage double albums that, though saddled with too many dud tracks, you wouldn’t wish a minute shorter.
Unlike the folk behind Extremely Loud, Lonergan fosters chaos rather than slipping into consoling neatness. Margaret demands that viewers do their own filleting, but it ultimately proves worth the effort. YOU CAN TELL a bit about how a country likes to see itself from a glance at its popular cinema. A huge hit in Australia, the likeable Red Dog appears to confirm that citizens of that country still enjoy the myth of the unpretentious larrikin. Beers are drunk. Fists are swung. Virtually every noun suffers abbreviation and the addition of a “y”.
One could hardly imagine a more blissfully archetypal beginning. A stranger wanders into a rural bar to discover a group of men painfully contemplating the destruction of a greatly beloved red dog. The poor beast has, it seems, ingested a fatal dose of strychnine, and his pals feel obliged to put him out of his misery. They decide to wait and, while the dog slips into sedation, they tell the visitor the beast’s story.
Red Dog uses its canine hero to unite a series of anecdotes concerning the inhabitants of a remote mining outpost in the 1970s. Trucker Josh Lucas bonds with his girlfriend at a drive-in while the dog obscures the projector. Another particularly butch character shares his secret love of knitting with the animal. There are encounters with sharks.
Based on a true story that inspired a Louis de Bernières novella, the film is really little more than a classy take on those liveaction Disney offerings that used to put charming cats, dogs and cougars at the centre of family-friendly dramas. But it really is very classy indeed. The cinematography by Geoffrey Hall, who shot Chopper, drenches everything in the same rust shades that give the hero his name. The occasional outbreaks of misery stay just the right side of mawkishness. The dog’s a charmer.
For my money, however, it’s the villain who steals the show. Forget Uggie. Somebody wants to give an Oscar to the terrifyingly hissy Red Cat.
Can you count on her? Anna Paquin with Mark Ruffalo in Margaret
Outback buddies Red and Lucas
MARGARET Directed by Kenneth Lonergan Starring Anna Paquin, J SmithCameron, Jean Reno, Jeannie Berlin, Allison Janney, Matthew Broderick, Kieran Culkin, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon