When I happened upon the trailer for “Margaret” I could scarcely believe it. Did Hollywood really make an A-lister movie about a New York City pedestrian who is struck and killed by an MTA bus driver? I thought it must surely be a secondary plot line, the shared trauma that serves to catalyze a love affair between beautiful witnesses or some such. For the most part, I was wrong.
I’ll be giving away a plot point or two here, so for the spoiler-averse I’ll say this: If you read Streetsblog closely enough to know what the “rule of two” is, you should watch this film.
If you’ve never heard of “Margaret,” neither had I. It was shot in 2005, and according to my cursory research its release was delayed due to legal issues. There may have been other factors. It’s overlong and there are story threads that don’t really lead anywhere, including one that seems shoehorned in for the sole purpose of having Matt Damon in the credits. But as an obsessive observer of New York’s broken traffic justice system, I have to be impressed it exists at all.
Anna Paquin plays Lisa, a spoiled and narcissistic teenager who, while walking along Broadway on the Upper West Side, tries to get the attention of a passing MTA bus driver, Gerald, played by Mark Ruffalo. Instead of ignoring Lisa or stopping the bus to ask what she wants — she likes his cowboy hat — Gerald drives on, looking toward the sidewalk instead of the street ahead. At the next corner he runs the light and hits a middle-aged woman, Monica, portrayed by Allison Janney. In a tortuously long and graphic scene, Monica dies in the street as approaching sirens wail in the background.
In the Hollywood version of a New York crash scene, detectives in suits and ties immediately swoop in to question the driver and witnesses. When a detective asks if Lisa saw the traffic light, she lies, telling him it was green. With a touch of what I can only imagine was unintended verisimilitude, the investigation scene only lasts a few seconds.
Lisa reveals to her family that she lied about the light because she didn’t want Gerald to lose his job. But when she learns that he has a history of crashes, and a visit to his home (in Bay Ridge) proves him to be an unapologetic lout, she decides to set the record straight — partly for Monica, mostly to assuage her own guilt.
Once the detective explains to Lisa that, despite her recanted story, Gerald won’t be charged with a crime — because he wasn’t breaking two traffic laws at the time of the crash — she tries to have him fired by convincing a relative of Monica’s to file a civil suit. I won’t give any more away except to say that Lisa gets a hard and utterly believable lesson in New York City traffic justice.
Writer and director Kenneth Lonergan weaves in nuanced bits that the general public would probably overlook, or accept as a given regardless of context: long and languid shots of ceaseless vehicle traffic, the rage of Monica’s best friend at the “stupid, meaningless” way she died. In one scene, Monica’s loved ones gather in the best friend’s apartment for an intimate, informal wake. If I could change one thing about “Margaret” (other than the title, which is another story) it would be to somehow emphasize how many times a similar scene actually occurs somewhere in the city during any given month — that it’s not just Hollywood.