Margaret, an Autumn Tale
What if you involuntarily caused the death of someone? How far would you go to repair your mistake? To ease your conscience? To be forgiven? But by whom exactly? Could you keep on living with yourself, or would the very thought of it just be too unbearable? Kenneth Lonergan’s movie Margaret asks these unsettling questions, depicting a drama of clashing ethics and responsibilities.
One day, Lisa, a 17 year-old Manhattan student, decides to buy a cowboy hat. Searching for the perfect accessory, she suddenly sees Maretti, a New York City bus driver wearing a hat she likes. For a second, his stare crosses hers, as she waves at him while running alongside the bus, asking where did he get his hat. Smiling back at her, Maretti takes his eyes off the road. Within an instant, he hits pedestrian Monica Patterson. Suffocating and hallucinating, Monica dies a short while later in Lisa's arms. Is Lisa a witness or the cause of this fatal accident?
Trying to figure it out and make sense of what happened, Lisa undertakes a journey within the confines of personal guilt and accountability. Yet, she does not let herself grieve passively. Instead, she actively attempts to repair what she thinks was a (her) fatal mistake, an accident that should never have happened and for which she seeks solace. But from whom? Is Lisa asking others to forgive her, or is she asking forgiveness from herself? And is she, really, asking for forgiveness, or does she search, instead, to condemn the author of the accident? What is more important - the search for forgiveness or that for condemnation? And who is she telling “I’m sorry” to? The family’s victim, the bus driver, the world, herself?
As the movie goes on, questions on forgiveness make room for another component - responsibility. Whose guilt is it, factually and fully? Who is accountable? Who should be condemned? Was Lisa a witness of the accident, or a cause, a trigger of death? Who should take responsibility (actively), or be held responsible (passively), for what happened?
Who should take responsibility (actively), or be held responsible (passively), for what happened?
Scene after scene, Lisa gets more and more involved in the aftermath of the accident. Mentally, as she starts to comprehend the legal and personal consequences of the accident. Emotionally, as she falls into the depths of consciousness. Physically, as she spends less time with her family and more with the victim's surroundings. But what are precisely Lisa's motivations?
Searching for answers and certainties where none can be promised, Lisa’s motivations remain in fact unclear – a doubt not merely expressed by her mother, but by Emily, the victim’s best friend with whom Lisa spends now most of her time. Does Lisa try to simply ease her mind, or to fully face her responsibility? Is she interested in an honest search for truth, or is she looking for "social credit" and good conscience? In a conversation with her father on the phone, Lisa even lets him know “...Not that I’m trying to make this woman’s horrible death into my own personal moral gymnasium…,” as if she tries to convince herself that her involvement has nothing to do with herself, but has everything to do with a higher level of morality - a more universal and abstract than a personal one.
However tormented by remorse Lisa seems at times to understand that she was just an intermediary in the drama - after all, she was not the one driving the bus and crossing the red light. The bus driver was, and therefore she cannot - and should not - bear all the responsibility. But should he?
Answering yes does not satisfy Lisa. Lost in her search for truth, she even starts doubting her memory. Initially telling the police, when first interrogated, that she guesses the driver drove when the light was green, she later admits, confronting the driver himself, that she lied: “I’m not trying to bring her back, I’m trying to tell what really happened,” says Lisa. “But you already did!” replies the driver. “I know, but I lied (…) It was like we were looking at each other like ‘let’s not say what really happened’,” concludes Lisa.
Why does Lisa retract from her initial statement? Does she do so out of guilt, or righteousness? Realizing she has been and become a partner in crime, misunderstanding what she thought was mutual understanding, Lisa is now obsessed with bringing back truth, her truth, on the table. Acknowledging she should have said the light was red at the first place, she justifies her choice to lie using fear - telling Emily she was just “too afraid to tell the truth.”
Realizing she has been and become a partner in crime, Lisa is now obsessed with bringing back truth, her truth.
But afraid of what? Taking responsibility, or pointing to someone else's responsibility? Either way, Lisa’s retraction seems to mark a turning point in the way she understands the meaning of responsibility and its implications. By claiming the light was green when the bus drove by, Lisa would have implied that Monica, the victim of the accident, was walking against traffic. And defending so, Lisa would have put responsibility on the dead rather than the living, turning the victim into the guilty. What she thought of as an accident, now clearly becomes in her mind a crime, and it is more than she can take.
Not merely impacting her, Lisa's change of narrative has lead to the disintegration of her mother-daughter relationship, precisely because it was a result of this relationship. In fact, Lisa’s primary confession about the green light was an advice from her mother who asked Lisa to think twice before telling the police the light was red because “the man has a family and might lose his job.” From now on, Lisa cannot but looking at her mother fiercely, as if to say that unveiling the truth is and ought to be more important than a man’s risk of losing his job, especially if the man in question happens to be the origin of the accident.
Interestingly, the officer’s office's scene is followed by a debate about the 9/11 events at Lisa's school. Monopolizing the speech, Lisa fights with one of her classmate who defends Afghanistan, asking: “Why are you defending a country who murdered 3000 people?", strangely echoing the possible question she could have asked her mother: “Why are you defending a person who murdered another person?”
The gap between Lisa and her mother grows wider along the movie. Sensing she is not only misunderstood by her mother, but unheard, Lisa confronts her to the severity of death, which her mother does not seem to acknowledge: “It doesn’t matter, none of it matters at all,” Lisa can’t help yelling when her mother confesses her worries in life. “There are more important problems in this world than our relationship. There is a whole city down there who let people die, so who cares about those trivialities? Why are you bothering me with all this? It doesn’t matter!”
“There are more important problems in this world than our relationship. There is a whole city down there who let people die, so who cares about those trivialities? Why are you bothering me with all this? It doesn’t matter!”
That way, what happened to be a loving mother-daughter relationship turns now to be a reflection of the triviality, fragility, and absurdity of life and the world Lisa, and we, live in. Having experienced something too important and meaningful - death - compared to the meaningless worries of life, Lisa understands that trying to make sense of death may simply result in dealing with life's futilities. After all, even after death kicked in, Lisa's surroundings cannot help but getting lost within the confines of normality. She therefore appears as the only character who actually contemplates and deals with the real issues of life - death, injustice, the search for truth and responsibility.
Lisa’s call for meaning and sense-making echoes what Albert Camus called “the absurd.” Referring to the tension between the human need to seek inherent meaning in life and the inability to find any because the world is meaningless, chaotic and irrational, the absurd reflects the condition Lisa finds herself in. Not merely trying to search for meaning in a universe lacking it, Lisa searches for justice in an unjust world, compassion in an uncompassionate society, forgiveness among those who cannot give it to her, and peace of mind which cannot be attained as it is an illusion once moral dilemma kicks in.
Lisa searches for justice in an unjust world, compassion in an uncompassionate society, forgiveness among those who cannot give it to her, and peace of mind which cannot be attained as it is an illusion once moral dilemma kicks in.
And yet, either living within the absurd or not, what Margaret tries to tell us is a bitter truth than we thought. Throughout the film, Lonergan clearly shows that nobody takes Lisa seriously. Her mother, Emily, the police officers, Lisa's math teacher and Maretti - all refer to Lisa's young age and lack of experience to explicate her over-reactions and impulsive temperament. But what if age was only a cover? What if the real reason that people do not take Lisa seriously is simply because they (we?) have become numb and deaf enough to the pain of others, their crying for help, understanding, and compassion?
What if the real reason that people do not take Lisa seriously is simply because they (we?) have become numb and deaf enough to the pain of others, their crying for help, understanding, and compassion?
This, precisely, seems to be the conclusion Lisa has come to. As Kenneth Lonergan himself will confess: “The world is too big to have it improved, or affected by you – that’s something that most of us find.” And yet, Lisa wants and hopes to prove the contrary. She understands there is no easy way. In undertaking the path to redemption, she confronts a wingspan moral dilemma: should she denounce the driver? What would be the meaning of such denunciation? Would it be merely an epuration of her own conscience? An act of vengeance? Or a will for justice?
Here, Kirkegaard's Either/Or dilemma might be worth mentioning. How should Lisa live in the aftermath of the tragedy? Should she devote herself to the aesthetical way of living, seeking truth for her own sake, or should she rather opt for the ethical way of life, where pursuing truth and justice would be a civic matter?
From moral dilemmas to justice, Lisa asks herself whether - and why at all - she should do everything she can to punish the bus driver, even at his family's expense, or whether she should simply renounce to an "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" equity and justice. After all, what if feeling and experiencing moral pain and remorse at the personal level was enough?
This is probably what Lisa hoped for, expecting from the bus driver a certain acknowledgment of his responsibility and some expression of regret. Decided to figure it out, Lisa surprises Maretti and his family on the porch of his house. Talking to him about the accident, she thought he might be the only one fully able to understand what she is going through, as they shared the same traumatic experience. Yet, instead of showing empathy, mutual understanding and reciprocal commitment to truth and justice, as Lisa expected, Maretti manifests denial and neglect towards his involvement in the crime: it was only an accident, he repeats.
Coming as a shock, Maretti’s disavowal only pushes Lisa to even more wanting to unveil truth on what happened. Drawn into a complex wrongful death lawsuit aside Emily, they seek monetary damages and the irrevocable dismissal of the bus driver: “I would just like somebody to take responsibility for what happened,” says Emily. At the police office, Lisa finally resigns to declare she saw the bus driver ran the red light without looking at the road.
Thinking that her confession, this time an honest one, would be the start of the end of the problem, Lisa expects that since she is doing the right thing – finally telling the truth – everything will automatically, naturally, get in order and the bus driver will be arrested for the crime he committed. As if there were a causal relation between doing the right thing, and achieving justice.
Lisa expects that since she is doing the right thing – finally telling the truth – everything will automatically, naturally, get in order
But reality kicks in again when the detective in charge of the case replies to Lisa that dismissing the red light cannot result in accusing the driver for murder, even if running the light caused an accidental death. Shocked, Lisa asks then whether the driver could be eligible to be prosecuted for manslaughter or second-degree murder, a question to which the detective answers a firm no. “That’s unbelievable!” she replies, asking: “What does he have to do? Kill her on purpose?” The officer answers: “Yes, because that’s the definition of murder.” While it is clear to Lisa that the bus driver didn’t drive over the woman on purpose, it is clear to her as well that he still should pay for his mistake.
In what follows, Lisa becomes less and less tolerant towards the driver's lack of responsibility and his refusal to confess he run a red light. She feels carrying the heavy burden of responsibility alone. “I was wondering if you felt bad at all for what happened,” she asked the driver, continuing: “I know I was distracting you, but I did see the bus go through the red light, and that’s when it hit that woman.” He answers: “Maybe I was waving at you to tell you to step away from the bus, for your safety!” before continuing: “Who is gonna take care of my family? And for what? She is dead, alright, there’s nothing we can do about it!” “It was both our fault,” concludes Lisa.
Can someone really flight from responsibility and freeze when confronting it? While Maretti seems to do both, Lisa opts for fighting injustice, unveiling the truth. To Emily, justice would be to inflict the bus driver as much suffering as she feels. It is then unlikely arbitrary that the next scene opens with a Shakespearian quote on justice and suffering: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the Gods; They kill us for their sport.” To Lisa, the quote is self-explanatory. It emphasizes the arbitrary nature of justice, for the latter is only but a hobby for the vicious and inscrutable Gods, who reward cruelty and delight in suffering.
...justice is only but a hobby for the vicious and inscrutable Gods, who reward cruelty and delight in suffering.
And this is precisely the very essence of Margaret. The movie is not about how a bus accident has affected the life of a young woman, but about the world’s cosmic indifference to Lisa’s experience. Margaret illustrates a world that keeps existing and functioning around, beyond, and despite Lisa’s trauma. A life that keeps moving for people unaffected by one's tragedy.
Is it just a mistake of inattention from our world, or is it the expression of a real refusal to listen? Have we become dull, immune, and deaf to the calling of others? When did others become so transparent to us that we cannot see them anymore, instead of translucent so that we can clearly see into them? When did we lose our capacity to listen to others, so we can manifest empathy, compassion, and even pity? Have we become ashamed to feel and express such feelings, or do we simply care less?
When did we lose our capacity to listen to others, so we can manifest empathy, compassion, and even pity?
During her journey, Lisa happens to transcend more than once her own experience, in order to grasp a bigger, wider and higher understanding of the human condition. But in reflecting on levels of responsibility and justice, their meaning and the lack thereof, truth and the moral duty to unveil it, the necessity to choose does she succeed in transcending herself? Does she really put herself in the shoes of others to understand their experience? What about compassion? Does she feel it towards Emily, or her mother’s boyfriend who dies suddenly from a heart attack, or is she, too, somewhat deaf to others?
Using herself as starting point, Lisa prefers eclipsing doubts to reach certainty. But in doing so, she instrumentalizes the tragedy of the accident and appropriates it as a way to complete her life. Emily will strongly reproach it: “This is not an opera, don’t make us the characters of your story.” Lisa will answer “I feel so bad about what happened, I am trying to do something about it.” A confession that stands at its pick when Lisa says while crying, after being asked by Monica’s family what is her interest in all that story: “I’m the one who killed her, but at least I know I did it, unlike the bus driver. All I want is for somebody to let him know that what he did was wrong.”
And so ends the movie – with unresolved questions about justice, real compassion and truth. But could they ever – be resolved? As Lisa and her mother go to the opera, Lisa crosses a bus traveling along the street. Maretti is driving. Or is he? We will never know. But as life goes by, Lisa will certainly – weep and know why.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Spring and Fall"
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as 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 will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.