Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Films of Lynne Ramsay: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

We Need to Talk Above Kevin (2011)
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay.
Written by: Lynne Ramsay & Rory Kinnear based on the novel by Lionel Shriver.
Starring: Tilda Swinton (Eva Khatchadourian), John C. Reilly (Franklin), Ezra Miller (Kevin, Teenager), Jasper Newell (Kevin, 6-8 Years), Rock Duer (Kevin, Toddler), Ashley Gerasimovich (Celia), Siobhan Fallon (Wanda), Alex Manette (Colin), Kenneth Franklin (Soweto).

Some people were just never meant to be parents. That’s the uncomfortable reality that Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin confronts in what could be described as a horror film. The film takes place entirely within the mind of its central character, Eva (Tilda Swinton) who is looking back over her life with her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) and her son Kevin (played at various ages by Rock Duer, Jasper Newell and most memorably Ezra Miller). Kevin becomes a monster – someone who commits one of those all too frequent mass killings at his high school – but what made him that way? In Eva’s mind, he was simply born an awful little kid – one who screamed constantly as a baby, wouldn’t talk for longer than normal, ignored her, bullied her, deliberately refused to potty train, and who exists simply to destroy her. Some people have complained that Kevin in this movie is basically a devil spawn – like Damien from The Omen – but it’s important to remember that the movie locks us into Eva’s perception of the events from the beginning. Every kid cries and throws tantrums (I say this as someone who has a nightly battle with a two and half year old, who at first refuses to get in the bath, and then refuses to get out), every kid seems to can be disobedient and frustrating, and every kid can look at their parents with the same look of anger or disgust (normally my daughter looks at me with nothing but love – but she does have what me and my wife have dubbed her “Jack Nicholson in The Shining look”). Kevin becomes a monster during the course of We Need to Talk About Kevin – but how much is because he was born that way, and how much is because he had a mother who quite clearly from the beginning of his life doesn’t bond with him, doesn’t like him and wishes she could go back to her old life before he came along. I’ve read Lionel Shriver’s brilliant novel twice now – once before I became a parent, once after – and seen Ramsay’s equally brilliant movie more times than that – and I still don’t know the answer. That’s because neither the book nor the movie really seek to answer it – they’re just asking the question.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of the best book to screen adaptations I have ever seen – and what makes that all the more impressive is how Ramsay captures the themes of the movie without resorting to the voice over narration that was implied in Shriver’s novel. Both the novel and the book are locked into Eva’s perception of events, not the events themselves, but how she remembers them – but Ramsay achieves this in a cinematic, rather than a literary, way – which is a more difficult trick to pull off. The movie is awash in red – fitting for a movie with so much violence – but very little of it is actually blood. One of the first scenes we see is Eva in what looks like a blood orgy – but is really a tomato festival in Italy, where the participants throw tomatoes at each other, and become drenched in them. Later, after the events in the high school, Eva will run away from someone she recognizes in the supermarket – and hide down an aisle in front of a shelf full of tomato soup. The freedom that the tomatoes festival represented is now gone – canned and shelved. Another recurring scene in the movie is Eva scrubbing down her house from the blood red paint that has been thrown on it – soaking her in more red. Eva is a character who went from free to a hollow, husk of person – someone who is punishing herself for her own failings.

Swinton is the perfect actress to play Eva. Her look is more exotic, almost otherworldly, so right from the beginning, she doesn’t quite fit into our idea of a suburban mother. She doesn’t belong there – and she knows it. Their perfect suburban house is too perfect – so neat and tidy it looks like a model home instead of one where people actually live. Her husband, Franklin (Reilly), wants to believe that his is a picture perfect family – while Eva sees everything Kevin does as a sign of his evil, Franklin refuses to see anything wrong with his son at all. His is what Swinton in an interview called “Hey buddy” parenting style – never addressing the real concern, and almost willfully ignoring it. The title of the movie is apt because this couple really does need to talk about Kevin – which is something they never really do. They ignore him, offer him superficial parenting that differs radically from each other in every way except that in both cases it’s fake – and Kevin senses this. It’s possible to watch the movie, where Kevin seems to be an evil little shit for almost its entire runtime, and still feel sympathy for him. Growing up in this house couldn’t have been easy.

Swinton is remarkable in this role – its perhaps the greatest performance of a career full of them. Like Samantha Morton in Movern Callar, it’s a performance that is largely wordless – or at least the best parts of it are. The film lets us inside of her head, to see through her eyes. She has an idealized vision of her life with Franklin before Kevin – represented by repeatedly returning to a rain soaked New York street that is impossibly romantic. There are other idealized visions in the film – the way she looks at Franklin and their daughter Celie dancing for example. She film is about her journey from that place, to the broken women we see after Kevin does what he does – a woman alone, in her dilapidated house, working for a low rent travel agency, and seemingly barely existing at all. Kevin forces her to confront her own failings – and she begins to see herself in him. Ramsay draws these parallels visually – the casting of Ezra Miller is great, not just because of who great he is, but because she shares the same androgynous features that Swinton has. In a scene where the pair go mini-golfing and Swinton complains about “fat people” Kevin tells her she can be “kinda harsh sometimes” to which she says “You’re one to talk”. “Yeah, I am. Where do you think I get it from”. Kevin is not much like Franklin – he’s able to put on an act to fool him – but his view of humanity is miserable, and so is Eva’s. I’m not sure Eva realizes that until Kevin forces her to.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a remarkable film by Ramsay – that grows the more times I see it. Unfortunately, the film was underrated when it came out just a few years ago, but I think it’s one that is eventually going to recognized as the masterwork it is. It’s Ramsay’s best film to date. I just hope she gets to make more like it soon.

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