Friday, March 15, 2013

Movie Review - "We Need To Talk About Kevin" (2011)

I have a fascination with drama-as-horror films. I frequently seek the rush of being truly made a bit uncomfortable. It's rare that a film upsets me to the point where I can't sleep, and "We Need To Talk About Kevin" (2011, dir. Lynne Ramsay) is the first of that kind in quite a while.  In this case, however, it's not a compliment. Feeling discomfort from a dark dramatic film can be cathartic, a way of dipping my toe in the waters of tragedy and emerging unscathed. "Kevin" goes 90% of the way there, but a crucial 10% is missing: that element that makes the experience something more than a vicarious torture box.  By the end, I felt let down and a bit cheated.

"Kevin" is not a particularly horrific picture, given the standards I play by (I liked "Irreversible" for heck's sake). The film feels drenched in blood, though most of it is metaphorical. From almost the opening shot the color red is splayed across the frame constantly, surrounding Eva (Tilda Swinton) everywhere she goes. It's an obvious but effective way to show that she cannot escape the trauma at the heart of the picture and her life.  The specifics of the trauma are left a mystery until the end, though the outline is pretty easy to guess early on.

"We Need to Talk About Kevin"
What's clear from the very beginning is that Eva is a broken woman and has been for years. Her son Kevin was something she wasn't prepared for (we see her looking a little too distant in pre-natal yoga classes, and practically dead to the world after giving birth).  As a baby  Kevin would do nothing but scream at her, though he appeared to instantly calm down when anyone else held him.  Her awkwardness dealing with him seems to feed his innate sociopathic tendencies, and as we watch him mature his hatred for his mother is as clear as day. He cruelly cuts off everything she says with "nanna-nanna-nanna" mocking. He refuses to use the toilet until the age of six despite understanding the concept completely, solely to torture her with constant diaper changes. And so on. For her part, Eva doesn't handle this well, occasionally being abusive.  But Kevin seems to expect this, and feeds off of it.

By the time he reaches his teenage years Kevin dominates the entire house, cowing his furious mother into submission by ensuring that her husband never sees him at his worst.  John C. Reilly plays the textbook "buddy dad" who is incredibly sweet, but leaves all the tough parenting to his wife, and is eager to maintain his image of Kevin as just your usual growing boy.  In a heartbreaking scene Kevin agrees to let his mother take him out to dinner, only to run through his complete script for how the entire meal's empty conversation will take place, leaving Eva to eat in painful, awkward silence.

Kevin's gift for manipulation is so powerful that it seems provided by Satan himself, and echos of The Omen  or The Good Son are certainly here. Indeed, it's a shame that this film doesn't seem to aim any higher than an artsy take on such "demon child" thrillers. It's made clear that on some level Kevin's climactic act of violence is what he views as the ultimate pain he can inflict on his mother, and I think that this is where the film lost me.

The lifelong conflict between mother and son is very effective, but having it capped off with a mass murder doesn't work. It's cheap because the entire event is staged solely as an act against Eva. Events like this wreck communities. We never get to know anything about the kids in his school, how he relates to them, and even the event itself is handled "tastefully" so that we don't see the violence as it happens.

In a way, that makes it worse. Gus Van Sant's great film "Elephant" (2003) was also about a mass school killing, but was entirely different in tone. The killers in that film felt anonymous, not much different from the others in the school. We saw the violence, but it wasn't sensationalized. We were confronted with the lifeless bodies of people we had come to know over the mellow first two-thirds of the movie. It even ended mid-massacre, so there was no conventional ending, no neat conclusion.

Kevin, on the other hand, gets his chance to pose. We see him on TV chatting in cynical adolescent fashion about how everyone's listening to him now because of what he did, like some teenage Mickey Knox. But he seems to be running the game from the very beginning. He sure doesn't come across as misunderstood. During the climax he seems triumphant. The film's ultimate twist reeks of cruelty, not because of what happens, but because of how little the film cares about the actual victims.

On the level of sheer technique, "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is excellent.  The unorthodox editing shuffles the chronology of the story rather brilliantly to mix the past and the present in Eva's shattered psyche. Through the length of the film we see how the town has villified her since the tragedy, and how she seems to willingly accept the blame. Tilda Swinton is one of my favorite actresses, and she's perfectly cast here, though she's kind of "doing a Tilda" if that makes sense. Great work, though she's done it before in better movies.

The final scene presents a flimsy attempt to humanize Kevin, or possibly to show that there's been some seed of growth in Kevin during his months in prison. But the climax is straight out of any number of lesser thrillers, and in the film's best moments director Lynne Ramsay shows that she's capable of much more insightful observations. It's a shame that Kevin is so one-dimensional, and that it all ends up the tale of a woman psychologically destroyed by her little hell-spawn  All this talent and quality in service to a worldview so sophomoric.

No comments:

Post a Comment