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.


jake said...

Great write up! I cracked up a few times at your wording (because it DID look like toddler Kevin wanted to rip her head off and crap down her neck).

I struggled a lot for a few days afterward with the fact that Kevin seemed inexplicably, unrealistically, frustratingly evil, one-dimensionally awful, just an impossible character.

Yet, I was so taken with Ramsay's direction and control (I loved her previous two movies) that I've kind of convinced myself that this "problem" with Kevin that bothers me was really meant to be some sort of experiencing-it-along-with-Tilda-Swinton depiction of him. As in, everything is kind of presented through Swinton's warped, sorrowful mental state after all the tragedy, and maybe this is just how she's remembering Kevin and these particular moments with him.

To further support my flimsy excuse-making for Kevin's one-dimensionality, I then interpreted John C. Reily's character as kind of a reference point for the audience. More than once he seemed to kind of question his wife's preoccupation with her son's evil nature, which he obviously thinks is exaggerated. As if to remind us: it's not as bad as she (his wife, and the director) is making it out to be.

I don't know, it's a stretch, I just really loved the movie as a whole but was endlessly frustrated by the kid and his utter awfulness. There were a couple way-too-seldom, super tiny moments of undeniable mother-son love (when he's sick in her lap while she's reading, at the youth home in the very end, etc), but even these can be explained as only existing because Kevin "needed" her in those particular moments - another act of selfishness.

Anyway, I'm still mixed up about it. Thanks so much for reviewing it!

Jason Bellamy said...

Jake: Great thoughts. Thanks!

I've kind of convinced myself that this "problem" with Kevin that bothers me was really meant to be some sort of experiencing-it-along-with-Tilda-Swinton depiction of him. As in, everything is kind of presented through Swinton's warped, sorrowful mental state after all the tragedy, and maybe this is just how she's remembering Kevin and these particular moments with him.

Certainly that would line up with the structure of the rest of the film, which really is about her memories, feelings, experiences, regrets and so on. I give you that. But ...

The flipside is that the father character seems (a) criminally oblivious and yet (b) somehow aware that the relationship Eva has with her son is a total mess (as evidenced by that rare moment where Eva does bond with Kevin and Mom and Dad exchange a look of surprise).

The thing is, even when the movie perhaps implies that Kevin is conning his father, pretending to be the good son he isn't, Kevin still seems like a little monster -- he just isn't as aggressive as when alone with his mother. For me to play along, the movie needed to give me some moment (more than the book reading moment, which is really more about the aftermath of Eva injuring Kevin) that shows Kevin having any sort of boyhood normalcy.

On a related note: So, Eva never wanted kids in the first place and has an absolutely horrible experience with Kevin from the moment of his birth ... so why did she decide to have a second kid exactly? And wouldn't the normalcy of her daughter only further underline the fucked-up-ness of Kevin's actions?

I really do love the moments that I love, including the terrific scene at the end, but I just can't get around the movie-villain extremes of Kevin.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Yeah, I felt the same way. I had read the book so I went in knowing what it was about - but it was really interesting to read your comments, someone going in with no preconceived notions. The book is actually an examination of sociopath children (not a popular concept, obviously) - and how "bad" kids sometimes do seem to emerge from nowhere. But the book doesn't let the mother off the hook (it's told in first person from her perspective). She honestly didn't "take" to motherhood, and you can't escape the implciations that maybe the kid picked up on that, even from the womb. But I agree: the film sort of derails into horror-movie creepy-kid cliche (I wrote a whole piece about Creepy Kid movies!) - and I did not like the acting of the kid, especially as a teenager. He was too much of a sneering demon. More of a flat affect and calm boredom would have been more chilling, and more accurate, I think.

And I think what is mOST interesting - and something not really examined - is the journey of the parents who have these kids who do awful things like shoot up schools and murder classmates. Like: what happens to them? How do they deal with what their child did? How do they make sense of it? Are they responsible?

I thought Swinton was incredible. You picking up on the fact that she seemed to accept that people hated her, that she deserved it, is such a testament to the levels she was operating on.

Thanks for your review.

Edward Copeland said...

There were so many things wrong with this movie, where to begin? I like John C. Reilly generally, but he was horribly miscast and the way it was edited with all that nonsensical quick-cutting it made Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge look as if it it had been paced at the same speed as Tarkovsky's Solaris in comparison. Of all the stupidities piled upon stupidities, how does he pull off this high school massacre? Automatic or semiautomatic weapons? No. Pipe bombs? No. Bows and arros. You're telling me that the students were so gripped with fear that none of them could have jumped the bastard since had to stop and load a new arrow each and every time? I also love that for no apparent reason they toss in that scene where they have to blame television when there were absolutely no scenes showing him watching television in the first place. It's a miracle that Tilda Swinton and I give Ezra Miller credit as well were able to give good performances since the film appeared to have been tossed into a food processor and then the frames arranged in random order. An incredibly poorly made movie that thinks it's saying something profound when all it's saying is that the filmmakers don't know how to assemble a movie that makes sense or is watchable on any level. Blech.

Jason Bellamy said...

Sheila: Indeed, the most interesting aspect of the movie is the impact of the killing on the kid's mother. When this movie is in that mode, as it is especially over its first 10-20 minutes, it's really powerful. But once it starts looking into "sociopath children," it's a joke. I wonder if this is one of those occasions where films (compared to books) are just too vivid; sometimes the space between the words in books allows characters to exist in a fog that makes them seem more real, less blatantly extreme.

Jason Bellamy said...

Ed: I meant to mention Reilly in my review, so I'm glad you brought him up. I can't decide: is he horribly miscast, or is he perfectly cast for what the filmmaker was looking for but the character is just completely absurd?

I'm also glad you mentioned the "blame television" scene. Like so many moments in the movie, a slice of it works: Kevin's mother watching her son's televised interview and trying to reconcile what he is to the world (a violent killer) with what he is to her (her son). But in addition to the lame, lazy and (you're right) out of nowhere criticism of the media, the other problem with that scene is that -- much like the scene with the very young Kevin staring down his mother while playing with the red rubber ball -- it turns Kevin into this campy movie villain, like he was cut from Scorsese's Cape Fear or something. Actually, maybe a better comparison is that he turns into a Batman-type villain, as if all his life he's been waiting to launch his campaign of evil on society. It's silliness.

Anonymous said...

Oh man, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your review on this movie. Grant it I haven’t even seen the movie yet but I know all about and that’s not just from reading your review. A lot of my Dish co-workers told me what happened. I was shocked, I don't know what I'd do if I were Eva and in her position. I finally ran across it on Blockbuster @Home so I rented it in Blu-ray, I can't wait to watch it.