Make sure you watch the long — REALLY long — version of ‘Margaret’

Fox Searchlight has released writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s “preferred” 186-minute cut of Margaret on DVD, alongside the 150-minute theatrical version on Blu-Ray. Unfortunately, as of now only the 150-minute version is available to stream on iTunes, Blockbuster and Amazon, so anyone who relies on streaming as their default way of watching a movie — and that is more and more people, every day — will only be able to see a lesser, compromised version, and may not even know that there’s a longer, more fully realized Margaret out there. (Review here.)

I attended the screening of the 186-minute Margaret, starring Anna Paquin, at the L.A. County Museum of Art (LACMA) last month. During the last hour of the movie, I got the sense of a film that threatened to sprawl past its edges. I mean that as a compliment: The way that the movie seems like it could go on indefinitely is a testament to its verisimilitude, to how well it captures a sense of life unfolding, in keeping with the filmmaker’s intentions.

Following the screening, the museum’s film programmer Elvis Mitchell held a Q&A with a somewhat rumpled Lonergan and a glamorous Paquin. Lonergan stated that in both cuts of Margaret, “I tried to pace it like normal life and less like a film.” That may be why Paquin said that she remembered a first reading of the script when the script ran 400 pages. Lonergan gently corrected her; it was only 365 pages, he said. (Throughout the Q&A, Lonergan was surprisingly funny in a mock-dyspeptic way.)

The place to be in L.A. on 7/17/12Lonergan’s aim, “to pace it like normal life,” may clarify why the 150-minute Margaret drew a mixed response last fall. The fascinating counterintuitive truth is that a film that runs just over three hours can flow much better than a film that’s 36 minutes shorter. This is a movie where every character needs to be given her due.

I haven’t seen the ‘short’ version, but just a few differences between the two cuts convince me that I don’t want to. For example, given the opportunity to fine-tune the film for the extended version on DVD, Lonergan’s most significant change was to remix the sound in a couple of key scenes, so that overlapping conversations fade in and out on the soundtrack. This was a major creative addition, given how often the extended Margaret suggests a cinematic symphony of New York City. Those diverse, competing voices welling up and then receding into the ambient din are crucial for creating a sense of the city always pressing in around 17-year-old Lisa Cohen (Paquin’s character).

Jason Bourne, Sookie and a really smart guy

No slackers on this set: Matt Damon, Anna Paquin and writer-director Kenneth Lonergan. © Copyright Fox Searchlight.

The theatrical cut also omits a scene of Lisa’s drama class, wherein the instructor has the students make touchy-feely public confessions to each other. Nearly every kid, Lisa included, starts crying. The scene provides significant character development as well as an emotional moment of closure to the subplot of Lisa and a classmate who’s in love with her. It’s also funny, in a bittersweet way. You don’t know whether to laugh or cry — the tragicomic world of Margaret in miniature.

Another calamitous omission from the 150-minute edit is a sequence that builds up to Lisa making a blunt, public confession to one of her teachers. (No spoilers here.) The confession is left in the Blu-ray edit, but because the viewer doesn’t get to see what leads up to it, Lisa’s behavior must come across as shockingly spiteful, if not weirdly unmotivated.

These scenes missing from the version of Margaret that’s available on Blu-Ray and streaming are more like amputations than mere cuts. I can only imagine they badly distort the movie. Even if renting or buying an actual physical DVD strikes you as clunky and hopelessly outdated, make an exception for Margaret — the movie lover in you will be glad you did.

For more on Margaret, click here.

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