A lucid sense of place has been a constant across seasoned theater director Kenneth Lonergan’s three films, and Margaret is a New York movie through and through. The extended director’s cut luxuriates in establishing shots of bustling avenues and towering skyscrapers until they grow into miniature lyrical interludes between scenes of dialogue. In the parlance of Sex and the City episode recaps, it’s almost like New York is a character in the film, its essence suffused into the very fabric of the story. And even in 2005, four years after the darkest day in the history of America’s greatest city, no self-respecting New York narrative could deny the long specter of 9/11.
We see precocious high school student Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) do things typical teenagers do: argue with her mother; explore the boundaries of her budding sexuality; and, on more than one occasion, get into screaming matches with her classmates during political and ethical roundtables. It’s in these scenes that the lingering presence of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks can be felt most strongly, not just in the heated words about national security and the Middle East, but in the way Lisa issues sweeping proclamations as if they’re truths handed down from on high. To varying extents, Lonergan’s films all map the arduous process of coming to grips with crisis (most often the crisis of death). In Margaret, the dramatist assembles a titanic analogy between the pain of a nation and one girl’s post-traumatic chaos, arriving at the same gray-shaded ambiguity and uncertainty.
Lisa’s most frequent sparring partner in the classroom is Angie, a Syrian girl who often takes a more sympathetic stance towards America’s then-recently claimed enemies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the surrounding nations. The two shoot back and forth from different points of moral absolutism, digging their heels in on what they perceive to be the opposite sides of a two-pronged debate: Lisa uses the word “barbarians” to describe blanket factions of Middle Easterners when clarifying the extent to which U.S. powers should carpet-bomb the shit out of Al-Qaeda, Angie sees where the bombers were coming from and wonders semi-ironically, “Was there ever a good president of the United States?” The intensity of the 9/11 attacks amplifies the intensity of their response to it, and makes it harder to arrive at a meaningful truth through debate.
None of this is to say that the young women are unintelligent; far from it, and it’s not even that they’re hot-tempered. It’s that they both want too badly to be right for their own good. In a rare moment of moderation, Lisa exposes her own naïveté: “Can I just say that I’m not a big fan of all the presidents of the United States, especially the current one, but I don’t think it’s useful to classify every president as corrupt. That seems really general to me, especially if you’re going to judge them by the standard of what they should have been like in this mythical version of America that never existed.” Even directly after recognizing that presidents are flawed men, even flirting with the notion that the job of the president forces flaws onto men, she continues to hold fast to the notion that maybe one of them wasn’t. She needs to believe in a straightforward good, despite the fact that moral compromise comes with the White House territory (hell, with life in America).
That’s how people react in times of great calamity—they search for something to hold onto. In a post-9/11 New York, Lisa’s overwhelmed by the enormity of global conflict and lets her rhetoric get more simplistic and fiery in order to convince herself there’s still a clear right and wrong left in the barbaric slaughterhouse once called humanity. (“The people who blew up the World Trade Center were a bunch of sick monsters,” she hisses.) Angie’s guilty of the same move, though we don’t see her make it as many times. In order to reconcile her own identity as a Middle Easterner with the heinous bombings, she casts the U.S. as a universally loathed global bully, spitting, “Americans have no idea how much people hate them, all over the world.” The reality of the situation sits uncomfortably somewhere between these two poles. (Meanwhile, some other dingbat contributes to the discussion with “Why is it okay to drop bombs on men, but not women and children? Isn’t that, like, reverse sexism?” Not much we can do for him, aside from appreciate Lonergan’s welcome touch of levity.)
That’s how people react in times of great calamity—they search for something to hold onto.
Lisa makes this error, the fallacy of searching for order and justice where there’s only the messy senselessness of life, again on a more intimate scale. Echoing the shattering effects of 9/11, the catalyzing event of Margaret is a chance bus accident that leads to a bloodied woman dying in Lisa’s arms. Her involvement in the harrowing experience leaves Lisa overcome with guilt (after all, it was Lisa who distracted the bus driver) and to allay those feelings, she throws herself into a mission to get the bus driver behind the wheel fired. As she and the deceased’s close friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin) prepare a case against him and the New York bus system, Lisa once again speaks about a nuanced situation using unduly extreme language.
She confronts the bus driver (Mark Ruffalo, Lonergan’s collaborator on the earlier You Can Count On Me) and though he does turn out to be a little sleazy, and has a record of accidents in the past, he’s not the fully-culpable villain that Lisa makes him out to be. Desperate to place blame on someone who is not her, she aggressively pressures both Emily and the departed’s estranged family members to forgo any cash settlement in favor of the driver’s dismissal, a conclusion she thinks of as just desserts. Not only is this staggeringly self-centered on Lisa’s part, it fundamentally miscasts the situation as it is. Nobody’s at fault, really, not even the driver, but to accept that would mean reckoning with the unfairness of life itself. Lisa’s horrified to learn that everyone would prefer some cold hard cash to the nebulous satisfaction of getting a blue-collar guy fired from his job, unable to see that there’s no use in imposing her Manichean concepts of right and wrong onto an arbitrary world.
That narcissistic denial masquerading as morality is her defining quality as a character—Lisa’s greatest scene finds her howling at her mother, “There’s a whole city out there full of people who are dying, so who gives a shit about your fucking boyfriend? It is so trivial! Why are you bothering me with all this, it doesn’t matter!” And yet the film takes pains not to cast her as a contemptible character. Her undercooked dialectic is just a function of her immaturity.
Lonergan’s depiction of teenagers and the way they react in times of great stress is tough but fair. The cheapest cheap shot comes when one of Lisa’s classmates cheerfully orates: “I think teenagers should definitely rule the world because teenagers aren’t corrupted by adult life and they’re idealistic and they care.” Apart from that, however, Lisa’s contemporaries come off as well-intentioned but woefully inexperienced and unaware of the greater workings of adult life. Emily gives Lisa the verbal equivalent of a slap in the face after the younger woman taunts, “You think I think this is dramatic?” Emily stares at her and says simply, “I think you’re very young.” She may be condescending a touch, but she’s not wrong; Lisa blows through life with zero consideration as to how the things she does can affect the people around her. She argues using extreme examples, or she does it just for sport, but it’s all because she can’t comprehend that even in times of crisis everyone’s got their own shit going on.
In the climactic confrontation between Lisa and Emily mentioned above, Lisa uses the word “strident” and their argument immediately grinds to a halt. The girl immediately backpedals and concedes to not knowing what the word meant when she used it. Lonergan underscores the precise power that words hold in his universe. When they’re chosen rashly, as in the classroom venom-spitting, they simplify and falsify our tougher-to-confront realities. In this way, Lisa’s radical responses to the great tragedies of her lifetime take on an air of denial—if she can make it all fit her worldview, she won’t have to come to terms with the crueler randomness of life and death.
It could be a bleak path for the character to walk, but Lonergan grants her a reprieve in the final scene, when she breaks down in tears during a trip to the opera and clutches her mother’s hand. Completely shaken to her core by the massive existential horrors all around her—annihilation raining from the sky, a random death with no apparent meaning—she finds solace in the affectionate arms of her mother. All her talking and rationalizing and point-proving means nothing; underneath it all, all she (and New York) ever needed was someone to fall back on.
Charles Bramesco is a film critic living in Brooklyn. A former staff writer for Rolling Stone, his work has also appeared in The Guardian, Vanity Fair, Newsweek, Forbes, Vulture, The A.V. Club, Indiewire, The Dissolve, Vox, Pitchfork, and Uproxx. His favorite film is Boogie Nights.