Six years of legal limbo and post-production hell have not been kind to Kenneth Lonergan’s “Margaret.” A troubled and troubling 2005 time-capsule that arrives bearing all the scars of its difficult gestation, this unwieldy drama of conscience in the wake of tragedy is hyperarticulate but rarely eloquent, full of wrenchingly acted scenes that lack credible motivation or devolve into shrill hectoring. It’s an angry, cacophonous storm of a movie, and like the horrific bus accident that sets it in motion, it’s hard to turn away from, though only self-selecting pockets of the arthouse faithful will likely strap themselves in to begin with.
Fox Searchlight’s chances of nurturing an audience for this nearly 2 1/2-hour film maudit will rely heavily on curiosity and lingering goodwill from admirers of Lonergan’s “You Can Count on Me” (2000), one of the most auspicious debuts by an American writer-director in the past decade.
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“Margaret,” by contrast, will likely stand as a heartbreaking cautionary tale on the pitfalls of inflated expectations and sophomore overambition. Shot in 2005 with a high-profile ensemble (including most of the cast from “You Can Count on Me”), the production stalled indefinitely in the cutting room, precipitating various behind-the-scenes clashes and a string of lawsuits that cast doubt on whether the film would ever see the light of day; two of its producers, Anthony Minghella and Sydney Pollack, died before the picture was completed.
Emerging at last with very little fanfare, “Margaret” nonetheless plays like a howl of fury that likely stems as much from its frustrating journey to the screen as from its material. Conceived as a New York symphony in the key of post-9/11 despair, shouldering heavy themes of guilt, atonement and retribution, the film centers on smart-mouthed high schooler Lisa Cohen (a pre-“True Blood” Anna Paquin), who indirectly causes an Upper West Side fatality when a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo), distracted by her hand signals, runs over a pedestrian.
From moment of impact to agonizingly protracted aftermath, the accident is staged with sickening realism, ending on a bloodstained tableau in which the victim, middle-aged Monica (Allison Janney), dies in Lisa’s arms. The fleeting connection forged in the woman’s final minutes has a gradual but profound effect on Lisa, and in the weeks that follow, she swings from apparent normalcy to uncontrolled fits of temper. Most of her outbursts are directed at her mother, Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), a professional stage actress dealing with her own frayed nerves and a new b.f., the worldly, opera-loving Ramon (Jean Reno).
The digressive, seemingly directionless nature of the story seems justified at first by Lonergan’s aim to render a layered, full-bodied portrait of one person’s response to trauma. And so the film observes patiently as Lisa considers moving to California to live with her father (Lonergan) and loses her virginity to a more sexually experienced classmate (Kieran Culkin). Eventually she reaches out not only to Monica’s best friend, Emily (Jeannie Berlin), but also to the bus driver, initiating a meeting that quickly turns hostile.
It would be easy to accept the drama’s lumpy, lurching structure if these threads came together in an honest, insightful fashion. But as Lisa embarks on a crusade to punish the driver for his negligence, something about her actions simply doesn’t compute; she isn’t tracing a believable arc so much as proving a thesis about how individual acts of decency are no match for the cruel indifference of Western society. In trying to illuminate Lisa’s moral confusion, the film winds up submitting to it, blurring a series of raw, forceful confrontations into a hopeless dramatic muddle.
If “You Can Count on Me” left things exquisitely unspoken, “Margaret” feels bent on saying it all, in a very loud voice. Antagonism is the default conversational mode in Lonergan’s New York. Everyone speaks in a testy, combative, highly literate idiom that doesn’t capture the city’s seething spirit so much as it betrays the filmmaker’s theatrical roots. The mood is further inflamed by classroom sequences in which Lisa and her fellow students scream at each other about racism, terrorism and Israeli-Palestinian discord, all to grating, self-important effect.
Paquin throws herself completely into the role of a pained, desperate teen acting out a peculiarly misguided form of idealism, yet her commitment often devolves into flailing hysterics; during more than one of Lisa’s tantrums, the impulse to slap her is overpowering. Smith-Cameron delivers a more modulated turn, her tetchy interplay with Paquin striking authentic notes of mother-daughter animus. Berlin’s Emily is initially welcome as an older voice of wisdom, only to become needlessly rude, even batty, as the film progresses.
Ryszard Lenczewski’s lensing serves up a broad panorama of Gotham locales, turning crowd shots into slo-mo interludes accompanied by Nico Muhly’s Latin-infused dirge of a score. Despite the numerous extra editorial hands employed to bring the film down to manageable length (including Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker), too many elements still feel like indulgent asides, such as the distractingly starry presence of Matthew Broderick and a still boyish-looking Matt Damon as Lisa’s teachers.
The densely allusive script (the title is a poetry reference) also could have done without its self-regarding subtext about the purpose and power of art: Again and again, the characters speak dismissively of movies, operas and plays, as if to suggest the limitations of drama as a means of catharsis. Under the circumstances, they don’t know how right they are.