Thursday, November 17, 2011

Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin

We Need to Talk About Kevin
Dir. Lynne Ramsay
Year: 2011
Aus Rating: MA15+
Running Time: 112mins

The boy at the centre of Lynne Ramsey’s first film in nine years is a slip of a thing. A skinny 15-year-old boy named Kevin, played here by Ezra Miller, whose tight shirts hug his lithe frame in a way that his mothers arms never did. The scant amount of scenes featuring this boy interacting with those who aren’t his family see him as somebody who goes generally unnoticed, unwilling to rock the boat with anyone who isn’t his long-suffering (and often insufferable) mother. Was Kevin born bad or were his actions, dutifully played out in Ramsay and Rory Stewart Kinnear’s unconventional and non-linear adaptation of Lionel Shriver novel, the result of a childhood being raised by a mother who saw him as little more than the reason she had to leave the big city. It’s the nature versus nurture debate and like the similarly themed (albeit, complete different) Elephant, the answer is probably a hearty shrug and flip of the hands, but the manner with which Ramsay has handled the material is the more inspiring accomplishment than anything resembling a resolution.

We Need to Talk About Kevin opens with a dizzying overload of sensory envelope pushing. What feels like a solid half an hour of little more than criss-crossing images from the life of Tilda Swinton’s brash Eva Khatchadourian, layered with an intricate and fragmented kaleidoscope sound design that paints a vivid and architectural image of this woman’s life before, during, and after the worst moment of her life. The bold, striking red of a visit to the La Tomatina festival in Valencia oozes into the flashing neon red of a police car’s headlights, which then flows into the imagery of Eva scraping dried red paint from the façade of her rickety house. Screams, chants and cheers merge on the soundtrack alongside Jonny Greenwood’s musical score before twisting into a stunning moment of revelation as Eva stands with her baby in a pram right next to a jackhammer at a construction sight, barely able to drown out the never-ending sound of her wailing child. Swinton’s face binds all these images and ideas together and it’s such a heady, intoxicating swell of emotions and feelings that it’s actually disappointing when Ramsay has to get down to actually telling the story that, ahem, she needs to talk about.

I was having trouble making heads or tails of the second half of this movie when a friend suggested that Swinton’s character is actually just a really unreliable storyteller. Was Kevin really that terrible of a child? Was her husband – John C Reilly as Franklin – really as cowardly and noncommittal as he appears or is it merely a figment of Eva’s unwell mind? Either way, I suspect an audience member’s reaction to the film as a whole will rely heavily on wheather they find these characters at all tolerable. Unfortunately Kevin becomes little more than a sociopathic Jason Voorhees with only one mode and a seemingly never-ceasing desire to inflict pain. Franklin on the other hand seems like such a whitewashed character that it’s almost as if there’s nothing even there for Reilly to perform.

The film’s best moments, outside of that exemplary opening gambit of a collage, are when it navigates the prickly aspects of Eva’s rotating world. The way a co-worker berates her under his breath at a Christmas party when she refuses to dance with him; her fierce determination to be normal as she waves across the street to a neighbour; the itchy skin she experiences when a wheelchair-bound student crosses her path and he proves to be the most sympathetic of all. Swinton is mesmerising to watch and her aghast facial expressions are some of her finest work. We Need to Talk About Kevin really does work best with Kevin is on the outer, a force that encroaches upon the lives of this world, but never really comes to be. It’s like when Hannibal Lector was so maniacally terrifying when seen briefly in Silence of the Lambs, and yet became a carnival freak show when given the increased camera time in Hannibal. Kevin is a forceful, powerful character on paper more than he is in flesh and blood. In flesh and blood he’s annoying and drags the film down no matter his age (played by Jasper Newell at age 8, and Rocky Duer as an infant).

We Need to Talk About Kevin is, like its UK quad posters suggest, some sort of radicalised horror movie. A demon child story in arthouse clothing with a villain as wise-cracking as Freddy Krueger and unrelentingly clunky as Michael Myers with Tilda’s Eva his tortured "final girl". Lynne Ramsay here is always doing interesting things with the medium and that certainly makes for involving filmgoing even when the characters and their actions are frustrating beyond belief. As it plays out in frenetic bursts, I admired its audacity, but just wished that somebody had indeed talked to Kevin rather than merely about him. B-


TrG said...

Great review! The photography is so exquisite and the acting so superb, I just wished the script and story lived up to it. There is so little that is believable about the story (how does one do what Kevin does in the gym on a mass scale with his chosen implement? Improbable and impossible) and so little that is relatable or likeable about the characters (Manhattanites that don't take their deeply troubled child to therapy?) that it starts to become a beautifully torturous exercise in watching stupid, miserable people be stupid and miserable up until an ending that we all know is coming.

Danielle said...

I don't know if you have read the book, but - if you can believe it - the character of Eva in the written form is even more intolerable! Unlike the film, where she seems completely dumbstruck and shocked most of the time, in the book she is much more brash and opinionated. I think Tilda Swinton succeeded in giving us a version of the character that we could actually feel sorry for.

Dame James said...

I just finished watching this film, and I need to talk about Kevin. Particularly the second-half, which I didn't realize so many people had problems with. The way I read it, Eva was right about Kevin's sociopathic tendencies, but her husband simply waved her off like it was all her fault. That's how every problem with Kevin was portrayed. When the baby wouldn't stop crying for Eva but shut up the instant the father picked it up, he tells her, condescendingly, "You just need to rock her." I figured that his refusal to see Kevin as a villain was simply an extension of that condescension, that "honey, you're doing it all wrong" smugness. By that point, Eva had thrown in the towel and given up trying to convince her husband. But those are just my two cents.