A philosophical hornet’s nest which gradually gets stirred up, Kenneth Lonergan’s 2011 Margaret – a film with fine shades of right and wrong – accomplishes in three hours what most of us never do in a lifetime, i.e. it acknowledges the blurred line between the good and the bad guys.
Oh life, what a messy business! Some argue that Margaret shares plenty of the same chaos – uneven and brutally unfocused, this three-hour mess of a movie can’t hold on to its emotional core. To me, this is exactly what makes the picture an accomplished piece of film-making. Part of its geniality is this ability to expose life as it is: random and chaotic. As she herself realises, the film’s main character’s ethical dilemma does not stop the world from spinning…
In New York City, as 17-year-old student Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) interacts with bus driver Gerald Maretti (Mark Ruffalo) – running along the vehicle, trying to get his attention – he gets distracted by the beautiful girl, misses the red light and runs over Monica Patterson (Allison Janney), who subsequently dies. During the police inquiry, Lisa reports she’s seen green lights, but eventually, out of remorse, changes her story. Like a zealot, and in collaboration with Monica’s family, Lisa seeks to punish Maretti through a lawsuit. When the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is forced to pay compensation money but refuses to fire the driver, she gets very upset. The whole story serves as a maturing process for the young woman.
It is ironic – and refreshing too! – that Lisa (who admits being ‘this little rich girl who calls up the cops to ease her conscience, and then ends up ruining somebody’s life, when [she’s] the one who was distracting him in the first place’) indirectly understands the gist of the moral problem presented in the film. As she pursues the punishing of the bus driver as a moral crusade, totally compensating for her feelings of guilt, Lisa also understands that in the greater scheme of things, her outrage against perceived injustice does not matter. To put things in perspective, while she plans with rational pragmatism to whom she should lose her virginity, people with serious problems are trying to manage their lives the best they can.
..Margaret Trailer © Fox Searchlight Pictures.
When Lisa and her actress mother Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) have an argument over going to the opera, she convincingly articulates the abstract thoughts of the last few days: ‘… and you want to know something else, Mom? There are more important problems in the world than our relationship! There’s a whole city out there full of people who are dying! So who cares if I like your fucking boyfriend? It’s so trivial! Why are you bothering me about all this? It doesn’t matter!!!’ However, though she starts to grasp a more profound understanding of life, Lisa still is far from a more abstract kind of empathy that cuts across not only social class, but also gender, age, place of birth, etc.
This combination of naïvete and good intentions permeates the whole film. As Lisa helps Monica’s close friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin) fight for ‘justice’ she is in fact siding with the greedy cynicism of Abgail (Betsy Aidem), the deceased’s cousin, who never seemed to care for Monica when she was alive. Lisa is not astute enough to realise that Abgail is completely out of sync with their intention behind the lawsuit, i.e. to have the bus driver fired, and thus prevent him from hurting someone else. But because Abgail is the next of kin, she decides to accept the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s offer of $ 350,000 to settle out of court and thus allowing the transport corporation to avoid firing Maretti as an admission of guilty.
It is Emily who slaps Lisa with the truth in the face when she tells her that people in her life are human beings and not supporting characters in the play of her life. As an immature teenager, deeply arrogant due to her social class and education, Lisa is totally unaware of her limitations. She might have a clue that all this frenzy pursuit of justice relates to her trying to redress her own sense of teenage powerlessness, but she certainly can’t conceive a different meaning for the idea behind of ‘never letting Maretti drive a bus ever again!’ How is such a requirement seen as just and not vindictive? Why should the justice system even take into account the victims’ wishes anyway?
So Lisa – full of herself – uses her sex appeal to get whatever she wants at any given moment and does not see the moral bankruptcy of her actions. Thus she cruises through a privileged and self-absorbed life, playing a game with herself of how to upstage her previous experiences. When she eventually stumbles into a problematic situation, partially created by her irresponsible actions, she then gets all high-minded about it. It’s not hard to trace a parallel line with what Lisa’s mother’s boyfriend Ramon (Jean Reno) implies about the status quo and rich countries. ‘[The oppressor] uses violence to maintain his position and calls it the rule of law. But when the person underfoot uses violence to change his status he’s called a criminal…’
It seems then highly significant that, after going through the whole film unable to engage with her mother, Lisa finally does at the opera. Surrounded by civilized folks, as she is moved to tears by the main singer, Lisa cries on her mother’s shoulder. As she grieves for Lisa, the child that isn’t there any longer, she might finally feel empathy for her mother’s petty problems and forget about Maretti driving a bus. Because, you know, ‘as the heart grows older – it will come to such sights colder.’ (Spring and Fall by Gerard Manley Hopkins ♠)