Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (MFF 2011)

We Need to Talk About Kevin
BBC Films, Independent

STARRING Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller
WRITTEN BY Lynne Ramsay and Rory Stewart Kinnear, adapted from the book by Lionel Shriver
PRODUCED BY Jennifer Fox, Luc Roeg, Bob Salerno
DIRECTED BY Lynne Ramsay

SHOT BY Seamus McGarvey
MUSIC BY Jonny Greenwood
DISTRIBUTED BY Artificial Eye, Oscilloscope

Screened at the 2011 Milwaukee Film Festival

“Boy Gets Mom”

Meet Kevin: antagonism personified. He is brilliant and highly toxic to anything living. One could call him disturbed if not for his utter composure, so we’ll just call him disturbing. Kevin ostensibly comes from Eva (Swinton) and Franklin (Reilly), but we know he really comes entirely from Eva. Poor Eva’s mind is shattered – try to picture what could’ve happened if Deneuve’s character from Repulsion had left her apartment and started a family in the suburbs. Kevin is experienced largely as fragments of memories focusing on imagery and sound motifs from Eva’s memory, strung together without apparent reason, just synaptic connection after synaptic connection which stretch though childbearing, childrearing and childfearing. It’s intentionally visceral and unsettling, and we’re at the mercy of whatever sounds or images are connected within Eva’s mind.

Kevin is self-aware to the extent of omniscience – even as a toddler he glares at mommy like a Dostoevskian misanthrope. Every effort at compassion is rebuffed, every effort at order is tripped up. The question is, would Eva have fared much differently without little Kevin? Fast forward a few years and Kevin is an eagle-eyed adolescent that we’re all just terrified of, and for various reasons, mostly Oedipal no doubt, he ends up championing a high school massacre and is imprisoned. And poor Eva, who was already so occupied with self-hatred, must now have her worst fears realized and be hated by all. 15-year-old Kevin is played by young Ezra Williams. I will only say: scintillating? Malevolent? His performance feels like a cigarette burn (in the best way possible). I now fantasize about casting him. To say nothing of Tilda Swinton, who is only perfect. I am a fool for not having seen more of her work – specifically the Jarman stuff. Crucify me. She gives an outstanding and highly nuanced performance of internal agony and masochism. I’m as confused as you are about John C. Reilly’s presence, but it is never problematic. Such a silly actor has now worked with a number of contenders – Malick, Paul W.S. Anderson, Polanski, Scorsese, Altman. I mean, that’s impressive. God bless him.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is Lynne Ramsay’s first feature-length film since 2002’s exceptional Morvern Callar. Ramsay adapted Kevin, over four years of meticulous scripting and production delays, from Lionel Shriver’s eponymous epistolary novel. When I say meticulous, I mean I’ve heard that this highly fragmentary film was pretty much all on the page before shooting. Count the number of cuts that you witness and you’ll understand why I’m impressed, and why four years of scripting suddenly makes sense. And shot in only 30 days!

Ramsay only runs into trouble when she strays too far into realism and out of the totally subjective visceral experience of the mother’s memories. It is, for instance, only in relation to herself that Kevin exists – he has no friends, no life outside the home, and seemingly no purpose in the world but to torment her. About halfway into the film the shock wore off and I began thinking things like “Oh come on now, why does the father take Kevin’s side on everything? Why are the parents unconcerned about Kevin’s clearly psychopathic behavior?” But Kevin seems to be raised for no other purpose than as a test subject (how much can we turn compassion into something self-destructive?). For the purposes of an allegorical film that may work just fine, but keep it allegorical.

The subjective/allegorical perspective works very well for me in this case. The film is the experience of the nightmare of motherhood. At first I thought Kevin was merely opposed to suburban values, but it is much deeper than that – Kevin is opposed to any productive, compassionate and life-affirming impulses. Resentment emanates from Kevin like pheromones at the comfortable, secure life and the parents who seem to be hypocrites for their patience and understanding. Is Kevin the living product of his mother’s insecurities, her doubts about the life she leads? An excuse to tear it all down? Is the mother’s constant desire for travel because of her little demonseed – or had she always needed breathers from The Home, The Husband? Was she prepared to be hated – by everybody? It’s interesting to note that the few flashbacks demonstrating Eva’s pre-mother times with the husband look quite hedonistic, we’re pretty sure Eva is at least drunk. I could be reading into things, but isn’t it the mark of a great film that I could?

Ramsay’s Kevin premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and is a very curious juxtaposition to Malick’s Tree of Life – a polar opposite. I can’t imagine many people voting for Kevin – it could be perceived as antisocial, after all, to prefer something so utterly negative to something wholly concerned with being life-affirming. I will say this – I was considerably more affected by Kevin than Tree of Life. Kevin is a bravura auteur exercise with blistering performances from Tilda and Ezra. Tree of Life is a pronounced cinematic achievement, for technical reasons if nothing else, but wore on this viewer a bit – a) already know Malick, b) the hype was downright sickening, c) the length began to wear on me, d) the ending completely lost me, e) sometimes Malick feels like going to church. I imagine that’s the least anybody has said about Tree of Life so far. It’s hard to love a film about hatred, let alone put your weight behind it, but once and a while it’s nice visit the other side of the tracks.

written by David Ashley