Both Kenneth Lonergan's film debut "You Can Count On Me" and his long-awaited, much-delayed follow-up, "Margaret," begin with an accident.
In "You Can Count on Me," it was a couple on a casual late-night drive home suddenly forced into the oncoming lane with a tractor trailer barreling down. The film shifts a few decades later to tell a story of the grown children of those victims: a sister (Laura Linney) and a brother (Mark Ruffalo), bonded together but malformed from a parentless life.
In "Margaret," 17-year-old New York high-schooler Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) is out shopping for a cowboy hat in her Upper West Side neighborhood when she spots a good one on a bus driver (Ruffalo). She runs alongside the bus to get his attention, distracting him enough so that he doesn't see the red light, or the middle-aged woman (Allison Janney) crossing the street.
In "You Can Count on Me," the tragedy is felt intimately in a family, its wreckage spread out over time. In "Margaret," it's public and immediate, clouded by the confusion of the moment.
The ironic thing is that while "Margaret" is fiercely contemporary, its moment was years ago. Writer-director Lonergan, an acclaimed playwright, filmed it more than five years ago. It's been held up because Lonergan could only cut a 3-hour version, and the studio, Fox Searchlight, insisted on a 2 ½-hour edit. Law suits followed. The director struggled to shorten the film, even turning to advice from the likes of Martin Scorsese and the late Sidney Lumet.
That tortured history certainly explains some of the flaws of "Margaret," which devolves notably in the last hour. But "Margaret" is at turns exhilarating, bold and insightful - enough so that final judgment of the film's merits will probably have to wait until Lonergan's 3-hour version sees the light of day.
In "Margaret," Lisa's culpability in the accident is intertwined with America's responsibility in the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. Lonergan has scaled down the tragedy to a simple traffic accident, but his concern is in considering justice and blame in the wake of a horrific incident. The camera frequently (and sometimes awkwardly) gazes up at the New York skyline.
Even while Lisa, amid bickering New Yorkers, holds the dying, bleeding, confused woman (Janney, in a remarkable, brief performance), you can see the guilt welling up in her eyes. It's an unforgettable scene.
In class (Matt Damon and Matthew Broderick play teachers), Lisa furiously debates a student of Syrian heritage who believes actions by the United States led to the 2001 attacks. Lisa refuses to see any guilt in America, and, likewise, she becomes obsessed with the idea that the bus driver deserves punishment.
The film's title comes from Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem "Spring and Fall," read in a class of Lisa's. The poem, addressed to a young girl, Margaret, suggests she grieves not for a loss, but for recognition of her own mortality: "It is the blight man was born for / It is Margaret you mourn for."
Lisa, too, descends into meaninglessness, lashing out at everyone around her. She gives up her virginity with a haphazard invite by phone and a boy (Kieran Culkin) she jokes about caring for.
She can be petulant and obnoxious, but Lisa is still admirable. She's on a frantic moral quest, desperate for justice and for clarity.
Most adults are of little help. Her mother (J. Smith-Cameron, in a fine performance), an actress, is more concerned with the opening of her new play. Her divorced father (Lonergan) is absentee, only available for impersonal long-distance calls from Los Angeles.
Paquin is exceptional. Even if she hadn't become a star from "True Blood" since "Margaret" was filmed, this performance - searching, ferocious - would have done the trick.
There are numerous subplots and characters I'm not even mentioning (the film even finds room for a suave Jean Reno as a suitor of Lisa's mother). It's expansive and epic, and one has the sense of Lonergan wading into a moral morass and losing his way, too.
I count 2000's "You Can Count on Me," humanistic and warm, as among the best films of the '00s. Lonergan's sympathy for his characters is here, too. From scene to scene, he so acutely portrays people forever in their own heads, always disconnected from one another.
It's possible Lonergan has lost his way, (his similarly long-awaited 2009 play, "Starry Messenger," was a mess on Broadway). This 2½ hour "Margaret" is unfocused and overcooked, but it's good enough to believe the filmmaker's 3-hour "Margaret" should be released - if for no other reason than to placate curiosity.
Throughout the film, art - plays, literature, movies and the opera - is lurking on the outskirts of Lisa's life. She denies its usefulness to real anguish until the final scene, set at the opera, where "Margaret" ends in the same way "You Can Count on Me" does: with a hug.
The crescendo, though, doesn't bare the emotion it should, and "Margaret" remains tantalizingly unfulfilled.
The Fox Searchlight Pictures release, is rated R for strong language, sexuality, some drug use and disturbing images. Running time: 150 minutes.