Will the real Margaret please stand up? As movie studios squeeze the last drops from the era of physical media, reissuing and repackaging commercial product ad absurdum (Singin’ in the Rain, now with bonus umbrella!), it becomes more and more difficult to determine which of the endlessly proliferating versions of a movie we’re meant to see: Rated or unrated? Theatrical or director’s cut? 2-D or 3-D? But no sliced-and-diced blockbuster has ever arrived freighted with as much ambiguity as Kenneth Lonergan’s long-delayed magnum opus, which hits home video today as a two-disc edition containing the 150-minute theatrical version and a 186-minute “extended cut.” (The discs are available, at least initially, only via Amazon.)
The belated follow-up to 2000’s You Can Count on Me, Margaret took years to edit and spent years more in legal limbo, mired in three separate lawsuits involving Lonergan, the studio Fox Searchlight, and producer Gary Gilbert’s production company Camelot Pictures. (Joel Lovell’s recent New York Times Magazine article sifts through the salient details.) It was finally released theatrically in October, although as the old Hollywood joke goes, it would be more accurate to say that it escaped. Searchlight, whose back catalog includes Once and Slumdog Millionaire, is the present-day master of turning unassuming movies into cultural events, but Margaret could not have debuted with less fanfare had the film prints been thrown from the back of a speeding van. Critics’ screenings were scheduled only days before opening, too late for many deadlines; advertising was almost nonexistent—although, to be fair, it’s hard to think of the appropriate Happy Meal tchotchke for a film that centers on a high-school student traumatized by a fatal bus accident.
Critics, spurred by an online campaign started by Slant magazine’s Jaime Christley, rallied to the cause of what some saw as an abandoned masterpiece, while at the same time wondering if a more perfectly realized version of the film might exist somewhere. For a movie devoted to the messy sprawl of human existence, the theatrical cut felt truncated in spots, its 2½-hours running time a product of contractual obligation rather than artistic vision. Muzzled by ongoing litigation, Lonergan kept mum, and when he did open his mouth, often in the company of an attorney, he sounded like a hostage with a gun to his head: “I support this Cut wholeheartedly and want people to see and like it, because the actors deserve to be seen and appreciated for their amazing work. But while I fully support the released Cut, it’s also no secret that I tried to get a subsequent version released, which Marty Scorsese very graciously helped with, which even more fully executes my complete intentions—a cut that I still hope will someday, somehow see the light of day.” (Fans of irony will note that Lonergan was a screenwriter on Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, a movie that by some accounts was gutted when Scorsese gave in to pressure to edit it down.)
Is the three-hour-plus “extended cut” on the new DVD that “subsequent version”? It depends whom you ask, and when you ask them. The lengthy and generally comprehensive Times Magazine account of the film’s troubles was maddeningly imprecise on the subject, and in a more recent interview with Indiewire, Lonergan was equivocal: “This is the detailed version as opposed to the suggestive version,” he said. “Which one is better filmmaking? I really don't feel qualified to say.”
There is, of course, more detail in the extended cut: more fighting between teenage Lisa (Anna Paquin) and her mother, Joan (J. Smith-Cameron), a theater actress single-parenting two children on Manhattan’s Upper West Side; more awkward dating between Joan and Jean Reno’s South American businessman; a subplot in which Lisa works behind the scenes of a high-school theater production, one of the film’s many references to narrative art. In the theatrical cut, when Lisa confronts a lover with the news that she’s just had an abortion, it comes out of the blue, leaving the audience to wonder whether she’s invented the abortion to get his attention or throw him off-center; in the extended cut, she takes a pregnancy test and then heads to a clinic, removing any doubt as to the truth of her statement, if not entirely revealing her reasons for blurting it out. But Margaret’s extended cut is not simply a longer, more fleshed-out version of the film that screened in theaters. It is, as Lonergan surely knows, a wilder, more daring work of art, an unruly masterpiece rather than a tidied-up sprawl.