In the ensuing fallout and investigation of the accident, a series of selfish acts by all parties define Margaret’s relationship with death and justice. Gerald is protected by his union, despite this not being the first accident he’s been involved with. His city employer is in the middle of negotiations, and they’re not about to fire a driver and risk riling up the union. Monica’s estranged family, initially uninterested and far away in Arizona, is suddenly concerned and grief-stricken when the prospect of a settlement arises. The police are more concerned with the paperwork they have to file and refile when Lisa, who initially said the light was red and places the onus on Monica, changes her statement to the truth. As an upper-class teen who’s experienced this incident but can’t be changed by it all at once, Lisa isn’t spared from acting badly. She revels in the telling of the story and how it makes her instantly more interesting, but she also uses it as a cudgel to bludgeon her mother’s everyday concerns, like who cares about upcoming vacation details when a woman just died in her arms.
Most importantly for the themes of the film, Lisa has an expectation of what is supposed to happen and attempts to impose that vision onto a world that doesn’t conform. She’s repulsed to learn that wrongful deaths are essentially a value to be plugged into a spreadsheet, spitting back a financial reckoning of a person’s life that will be paid by an insurance company, who will then alter its rates on a public utility, who will then get more money from the public to pay those rates. She constantly dismisses the damning nature of her changed testimony, and is then outraged when Gerald sticks with his story, even wondering aloud why the cops didn’t beat the truth out of him. She refuses to consider how there is nothing at stake for her in this incident beyond a moral exercise. Lisa is often a deeply unlikable protagonist in her obfuscations and distractions, embodying a teenager who’s certain they’ve learned as much as they need to about the world.
It’s here that Margaret places itself in a sociopolitical frame. Lonergan repeatedly revisits the classroom, where Howard Zinn-esque teachers are having round-table discussion with their classes about the US response to 9/11 and other current events. Filmed in 2005 but delayed til 2011, the choice to keep returning to these debates, which often devolve into screaming matches between Lisa and a student of Syrian descent, puts the viewer in an allegorical mind frame, and Lisa quickly becomes a stand-in for a US government flailing around for justice and making things worse. Unlike the detectives who scoff at Lisa, no one stopped the US from torturing people in its custody. Her lack of knowledge is believed by her to be inconsequential, like she can tromp around her environment with no thought towards the consequences. Lonergan locates in Lisa an allegorical carte blanche, like this thing that happened to her gives her license to act out in ways she’s always wanted to, sexually on her part and militarily on the part of the US.
Lonergan’s too expansive of a writer to only make an epic-length movie as an allegory for US interventionism. Within Lisa’s reckoning with a world that doesn’t care about how she thinks it should work are a half dozen other smaller dramas involving her and the large supporting cast. Cameron’s Joan is experiencing a professional resurgence onstage alongside a romantic one with new boyfriend Ramon (Jean Reno), and is fishing for compliments and feedback on both not unlike the way her daughter is bringing up the bus incident to anyone who’ll listen. Damon’s character and a fellow teacher played by Matthew Broderick both seem to have lost a lot of screentime due to the film’s infamously brutal editing, but in the truncated theatrical cut, they make impressions as two very different educators, both in teaching style and in how they’re viewed by their students. The teen drama on display between Lisa, Gallagher’s character, and a third classmate played with smarmy, unearned confidence by Kieran Culkin is also well-observed in locating the poorly-concealed insecurities of all three.
Despite the many interludes, all roads lead back to the bus incident. The only truth-teller in the film, unburdened by courtesy and gifted with bluntness, is Jeannie Berlin’s Emily. She plays Monica’s closest friend, and she accompanies Lisa as they both navigate the world of lawyers and insurance adjustors. Immediately recognizable as a person uninterested in small talk, Emily is the film’s supplier of catharsis, especially when it comes to slicing through Lisa’s pretensions and preconceptions. Janney’s visceral portrayal of the harrowing few minutes after the incident are the heart of the film, and Emily is the one that keeps it beating with her insistence that her friend’s life will not be distilled down to its final moments. Lisa keeps wanting to read so much into every utterance and glance from those moments, but it’s Emily who has to all but scream in her face that Monica, in fact, died pointlessly and meaninglessly, and any amount of comfort falsely implanted onto it is obscene. The best case scenario for Emily is to at least get Gerald off the streets, not to fulfill a need for justice or vengeance, but so someone else won’t also have to be spent in such a useless way.
Lonergan will make his unequivocally best film a decade after wrapping on Margaret, but this is his most ambitious work by far. Even with all that’s left out and in how much the film wants to interrogate about the state of the mid-2000’s world, the film is concise and coherent in its takeaways. Movies don’t exist on contemporary relevance alone, and the emotional impact of Margaret is considerable. As irritating as Lisa often is, Paquin does the best work of her career with this complex character. Her furious raging and rapid fire complaints break through what makes Lisa so difficult, until there’s just a desperate child clinging to her prior worldview as it collapses around her. The complexities of the world tend to dawn on a person slowly, but she’s being buried in them all at once. Add in the top-tier work so much of the rest of the cast is doing and Lonergan’s persistent ability to carve out true moments for everyone, no matter how small the role, and Margaret becomes a stunning work of art. A-