A singularly compelling study of trauma

A film that in hindsight seemed destined for a dramatic entrance, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan’s follow-up to You Can Count On Me finally emerged with minimal fanfare last December, over five years after it was shot.

It brought with it a troubled history: several lawsuits, that arose from Lonergan and studio Fox’s inability to agree on a cut until Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker helped steer this version into cinemas, where critics leapt to its defence in impassioned droves.

It’s a behind-the-scenes path befitting a film whose protagonist wilfully thrives on self-created drama. In a thoughtless moment of flirtation, teen Lisa (Anna Paquin) distracts a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) on a busy Manhattan street, triggering a horrifying accident that ends with a pedestrian (Allison Janney) dying in her arms.

This inciting incident, the intrusion of incomprehensibly violent death into the everyday, is one of Lonergan’s boldest, most brilliant strokes. Lisa walks home covered in the victim’s blood, a visual metaphor no less subtle than it’s intended to be.

For Lisa, a precocious, well-read student with a Broadway actress mother and a flair for the theatrical, it’s this striking, Shakespearean self-snapshot that motivates her.

At once guilt-stricken and high on the thrill of casting herself at the centre of a real-life morality play, Lisa decides justice must be done, and teams up with the victim’s best friend (Jeannie Berlin) to take action against the driver. Some have dismissed Lisa as a purely loathsome character, but this does a disservice to Paquin’s mesmerising turn.

Abrasive, self-involved and histrionic Lisa may be, but she’s also young; in Paquin’s hands so relentlessly emotionally available that it’s impossible not to feel for her. The wounds of a gory cutting process are visible on the film, particularly in its third act where numerous loose ends – such as a strand centred on Matt Damon as Lisa’s teacher – are evident.

It would be generous to suggest the choppiness is intentional, but it does create a chaotic, howling sense of pain that couldn’t have been achieved with a neater narrative.

Lonergan’s restless, hyper-articulate script makes his characters fascinating to listen to even in their most fragmented scenes. Margaret’s journey to the screen may’ve been rocky, but the result is a singularly compelling study of trauma. It’s a raw, messily magnificent near-masterpiece.

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