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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

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

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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

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