Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Qu’est-ce que c’est?: We Need to Talk About Kevin
Of all the 2011 movies I saw last year and in the early part of 2012, Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin was among those about which I knew the least. I went into the film aware of only its headline actor and what little I could surmise from its clumsy title: that the movie dealt with a child named Kevin and some kind of disaster. Exactly what that disaster was, and whether Kevin was its victim or perpetrator, I didn’t have a clue. And so as We Need to Talk About Kevin began to unfold, I congratulated myself on my good fortune, because in so many ways Ramsay’s film rewards mystification. The opening 10 minutes are a collage of ambiguous imagery: the curtain of an open patio door blowing in the wind; revelers of the La Tomatina Festival pressed up against one another, covered in tomato pulp; a modest gray house with a yellow car out front, both splattered with what seems to be red paint; an immodest home interior with the bright-white, natural-wood ambiance of an IKEA catalog; a young girl with a patch over one eye, eating cereal; and so on. What did all these images mean? How did they fit together? I didn’t know, and in this era of unavoidable, overly explicit marketing campaigns, I cherished my inability to predict what was coming.
(The rest of the review contains major spoilers.)
Ramsay’s strobe-like delivery of information in these early scenes piques curiosity and encourages active viewership, but more importantly it evokes the scattered mental state of the main character, Tilda Swinton’s Eva. Over the first third of the film at least, that’s what We Need to Talk About Kevin seems to be about: not so much “what happened” but about Eva’s feelings about what happened, and about her attempts to piece together and then reconcile many disparate events and emotions. Seen from that angle, Ramsay’s film is a triumph, one of the most penetrating depictions of trauma and regret I’ve ever encountered. Through clever juxtaposition of moods and timelines, we detect Eva’s guilt and loneliness long before we learn why she feels as she does. (As evidence of the ambiguity of those early scenes: My first guess was that Eva was an addict who got into a car accident that killed or maimed her son, thus prompting her husband to leave with their daughter. If you’ve seen the movie, you know that isn’t even close. And if you haven’t seen the movie, seriously, stop reading.) Eva is conversely burdened: she has the weariness of a victim and yet also the shame of a sinner. But why?
That’s where things unravel. The surface-level answer is poetically tragic and of this world: Eva’s son, the titular Kevin, whose upbringing was anything but easy, locked his high school classmates in the school building and went on a shooting rampage, injuring some and killing others. Alas, the deeper answer is absurd: Kevin is a total fucking psychopath. Before he shot up the school, he caused his younger sister to lose her eye; and before he took out her eye, he put her pet hamster in the garbage disposal; and before he killed the family pet, he plotted to give his mother a computer virus; and before he ruined her computer with a virus, he ruined her home office with a paint-loaded squirt gun; and before he made that mess, he pooped himself as an act of malice; and before he did all of that, when he wasn’t even old enough to speak, he sat on the floor as his mother attempted to play with him and stared her down like he wanted to rip her head off and crap down her throat (pardon the expression). As real as Eva’s frustration, shame and guilt feel, Kevin’s rage is a farce. Ramsay, who cowrote the screenplay with Rory Kinnear from a novel by Lionel Shriver, essentially asks us to believe that Kevin came out of the womb as demon spawn, the result of either incredibly bad luck or Eva’s original sin of not wanting to be a mother in the first place. And thus the entire exercise is cheapened to the point of near meaninglessness.
Compelling us to care in spite of it all is Swinton, one of the most consistently engaging actresses working today. With anyone less in the starring role, We Need to Talk About Kevin would play like a well-shot-but-still-as-bad-as-you’d-expect-it-to-be Nicholas Cage movie. In fact, in moments it still plays that way. But Swinton’s devastating inward suffering has a magical ability to offset the movie’s all too frequent cartoonish blatancy. The film’s much talked about red motif – from the La Tomatina Festival, to the red paint that Eva painstakingly scrubs off her house, to the rows of tomato soup cans in the grocery store – suggests that Eva is haunted by memories of blood, but Swinton needs little help to convey that emotion. Somehow, amazingly, she drains her face of any warmth of expression and lets her eyes sit still and hollow, suggesting in sum a dead woman stumbling through a life of utter hopelessness. Eva sees Kevin’s anger and violence as an outgrowth of her own, and it’s as if living with the guilt of her (debatable) influence is her own prison sentence.
For the parent of a teenage school-shooter, that makes perfect sense, and I suspect the characterization reflects real life. But what prevents We Need to Talk About Kevin from being an astute commentary on these times is the implication that Kevin is anything like the boys who shot up Columbine in Colorado, or the boy who shot up Thurston in Oregon, or any other school shooters. Nonsense. By all accounts, those were troubled boys. Kevin, by contrast, is a complete monster. He couldn’t call more attention to his demonic tendencies if he crab-walked down the stairs like Regan in The Exorcist. And so where parents in the real world would might spend the rest of their lives wondering if they should have seen the signs, the only thing Eva could convincingly ask herself is why she didn’t lock Kevin in a dungeon when he was about 6 and throw away the key. Ultimately, the only lasting mystery of We Need to Talk About Kevin is how anyone wouldn't be able see Kevin's rampage coming.