USA (149 mi) 2011 d: Kenneth Lonergan
Márgarét, are you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow's spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
—Spring and Fall: To a Young Child (September 7, 1880) by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 – 1889)
A hugely ambitious work, something along the lines of Charlie Kaufman’s SYNECDOCHE NEW YORK (2008), not in subject matter but as it similarly covers such a broad canvas, released a decade after his last work YOU CAN COUNT ON ME (2000), originally shot in 2005, where despite the 6-year history of lawsuits it was considered by the studio Fox Searchlight as unreleasable, requiring that it be under 150 minutes and refusing to pay for a film they thought would never be released, but with the help of additional money from actor Matthew Broderick and a final editing by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, Lonergan approved their edit for this theatrical release. Considering the circumstances, the pace of the film is brisk and fluid, the subject dense and complex, and is surprisingly well constructed, where there may be a few odd dangling moments that could have been left out, or more likely expanded, but this film offers more sensational sequences that stand alone on their own artistic merit than any other film in recent memory, as there are at least a dozen or so such scenes, each wonderfully realized and well incorporated into the film. Most all include the brilliantly sensational dialogue, perhaps the best written film in the past decade, along with so many impressive performances both large and small, where so much spins off the interpretation of a single word, where this is a film replete with misunderstanding, with a near obsessive drive to be understood, yet a single word may be picked out of one’s comments which in the eyes of others refutes everything else said. This misunderstanding, then, is not accidental, but willfully misunderstood, where there is an equally obsessive drive to hurt and belittle others with chaotic and embarrassing insults. The language here is so combative that it often resembles the theatrical fireworks of a play, hurled with the ferocious invectives of Edward Albee’s WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966), and, reinforcing a theme, there are several stage performances witnessed before a live audience, where the reaction to them changes and evolves over time, revealing the significance of personal transformation.
The film is a bold and brutally honest exposé of a post 9/11 New York, which most importantly unveils the complexity of one’s own evolving personal reaction to a horrific accident, a film experience that thrives on combustible force, such as the friction and combative language between two people, the unpredictability of the theatrical experience, the boredom of an overly structured classroom setting, the hotly contested courtroom litigation, the chaotic dynamics of multiple parties on a speaker phone, several unannounced visits to perfect strangers, or even the improbable dynamics in initiating sexual interest. Anna Paquin, now 29, was only 23 when she played this 17-year old student (Lisa Cohen) at a privileged New York City high school, living with her single mom Joan (J. Smith-Cameron, Lonergan's wife), a Broadway actress. The two beat each other up emotionally, never really understanding each other and rarely giving the other a chance, feeling overly suspicious of each other’s motives to the point where both feel smothered by the other’s contempt or utter indifference. Lisa’s Dad (played by the director) lives in a plush beach house in Santa Monica, seemingly the idyllic world, except his relationship with his new girlfriend reveals its own deficiencies, so it’s no paradise to run off to, though initially Lisa is making preparations for a visit. Everything unravels following a single event that happens right off the bat, a tragic bus accident that leaves Lisa devastated, as an innocent pedestrian (Allison Janney) ends up dying in her arms, while waves of guilt and confusion rush through Lisa’s comprehension of the events, as she was attempting to get the bus driver’s attention just before the accident. However, she fails to mention this when she tells the officers on the scene that this was all just an accident.
Often using a slowed down change of camera speed, especially in the streets of New York, this reflects the change of pace going on inside people’s heads as they’re walking down the street, often daydreaming or easily distracted by window displays, food vendors, or their own cellphone conversations, where a part of their brain is operating at a different speed than the rapidly passing traffic. This also expresses a kind of compartmentalization, where people’s focus is broken down into separate and different parts, which may operate in school classrooms where your thoughts may lie elsewhere, or a teenager’s conversation with their parents, or a disrupted phone call, or even a conversation with one friend when you’re actually thinking of someone else. Lonergan figures all of these fractured and imbalanced moments into his film, where they come into play in ways people least suspect, as they have no idea the significant impact that seemingly throwaway lines have on other people who are intensely interested in what they have to say, where the indifference of one hurts and overrides the acute curiosity of the other, where emotions are existing simultaneously on so many different levels, like an architecturally designed playing field of human drama. Paquin is near brilliant in conveying all these mixed and conflicting emotions, not as a particularly appealing character, but a rich and pampered prima donna who’s used to being the center of attention whenever she feels like it, who selfishly indulges in whatever she likes, showing little to no regard for others, but who also craves the attention and adoration of adults she admires or needs. She willingly bullies and manipulates others to get what she needs, pretending she cares, but never for a minute does she take responsibility on any level. Frankly, she’s a thoroughly despicable character throughout most of the film, but also completely captivating, a whirlwind of mixed emotions, where there’s an authentic adult person hidden underneath fighting to get through the adolescent cloud of confusion.
Lisa has a change of heart about the accident, plagued by the idea that there’s no justice if the driver is not held accountable, reconnecting on her own, with varying degrees of success, with the bus driver, police, and even the family of the deceased, where she meets Jeannie Berlin (Elaine May’s daughter) as Emily, the person closest to the woman who died in Lisa’s arms, whose achingly real remarks at the memorial service are among the highpoints of the film, where Berlin delivers the performance of her career, whose grace under pressure offers Lisa a new friend and role model. Emily is also an entryway to taking relevant action, finding an attorney who will sue the bus company for negligence. Lisa’s mother finds this attention discomfiting, proud that her daughter is following up in a socially relevant manner, but also a bit disconcerted that her daughter’s personal obsession has relegated her own mother to the sidelines, as it’s been an issue Lisa refuses to even discuss with her mother, instead placing her at arms length. Again, the imbalance of emotions between the doers and the watchers are swinging on significantly different levels, where the interplay between Lisa and Emily only grows more intense, reaching a climax with a proposed settlement offer, a compromise offering monetary rewards that refuses to hold the driver accountable, as this would admit liability, the sole objective of Lisa coming forward, which evolves into a blitzkrieg of conflicting emotions, one of the superb moments of the film. Afterwards Emily starts questioning Lisa’s need for drama, to always be the center of attention, and refuses to allow her lifelong friendship with the deceased to be jeopardized or defined by a teenager who won’t even speak to her own mother. Incredulously, this is another one of those sequences of the film, all set in motion with the use of the word “strident,” as Lisa goes absolutely berserk with this rejection, as if her entire world is crumbling and she has nowhere else to turn. Where she does turn is to sexually inappropriate behavior, perhaps one of those regrettable sequences that if it can’t be expanded deserves to be cut.
The canvas of the film is an emotional battleground, where blood gouging and unhealed scars are evident everywhere, where characters are defined by their emotional limitations, but also their willingness to keep at it, to persevere through what can only be considered the unknown. There’s a novelistic complexity to the overall sweep of the film, which takes the viewer through a breathtaking panoply of emotional conflict on an unprecedented scale. This is accompanied by luminous photography of the streets of New York, capturing the glisten of the streets at night along with the beautifully lit street lights. The sidewalks are a constant reminder of the teeming life in the city, using a 360 degree pan at one point, or a street level shot that eventually elevates pointing upwards and skyward towards the tops of the skyscrapers. Like the complicated emotional landscape, there’s also an accompanying architectural potency to the city’s design, both seemingly in harmony in this film, where the film is replete with unforgettable sequences, like Lisa’s spontaneous visit to bus driver Mark Ruffalo, where his wife Rosemarie DeWitt’s suspicious reaction is especially intriguing, a high school kid who insists his version of Shakespeare is as equally relevant as Matthew Broderick, his high school teacher, and then doesn’t back down, something most kids don’t do, also the reading of the “Margaret” poem, seeing Lisa’s devastating reaction at the time, Jean Reno’s firmly held convictions of the “Jewish” response, the ongoing arguments between Lisa and the Syrian student in her class, the scene of Jean Reno’s son describing the thoroughly intense nature of his father’s feelings towards Lisa’s mother, the phone call where the lawyer announces the settlement offer leading to Paquin’s heartfelt reaction of defeat instead of victory, and an acknowledgement finally that she caused the accident, followed by Lisa’s cigarette moment at the opera which evolves with a grandiose sweep until the haunting quiet of the finale - - simply exquisite and sublime.