Wednesday 2 November 2011

Review: We Need to Talk about Kevin

Year: 2011
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Screenplay: Lynne Ramsay, Rory Stewart Kinnear
Starring: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller

Synopsis is here

NOTE: My review is not explicit about major events in the film but there is enough written that might annoy. If you are sensitive about such matters, you may wish to watch the film first. In short, I dug this film.

The films most troubling moment comes at the end of the film. A gesture is made which asks the viewer "could you?" The gesture is so slight and unassuming and yet it displays details so much about the films central relationship. The same scene makes sure also carefully makes sure that one is left in the dark from other questions you might have answered, particularly the one we always ask when such tragedies occur.

Eschewing the episodic nature of the novel (Eva writes letters to her husband Franklin) We need to talk about Kevin comes across as part Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003) and Joshua (2007, George Ratliff) but doesn't lose any of the spirit of the book. While Ramsay's film seems to have softened Eva somewhat (this view may be very dependant on personal perspective) but the themes of nature versus nature and love unconditional still stand strong. Said themes lie upon the board acting shoulders of one Tilda Swinton, whose complex and problematic performance carries the weighty burdens of guilt and shame easily, along with the larger issues at hand.

Swinton, dominates the film with a towering performance that helps raise the questions both the book and the film ask.While film does take away some of the background of the book and gives us a more streamlined story (Eva's throwaway mentions of America's political landscape; for example, are stripped away) this doesn't make Swinton portrayal of Eva any less conflicting. Small scenes; such as the doctor asking Eva not to resist during childbirth, or one of the earliest moments of Eva living life to the full in a tomato throwing festival slowly build up the image of a woman who believes that motherhood was thrust upon her. Even Eva look (with no offense to the brilliant Swinton) is not one of a mother. Well, not one we usually prescribe to. The look that lingers on Swinton's face throughout is a mixture of doubt and fear. The book furthers the detail of the hesitations but Swinton's ability to carry a scene and Ramsay's simple yet sharply shot scenes help place the message in the forefront.

Swinton's features become even more haunting as you see her paired up with Ezar Miller who plays the titular Kevin. The similar look of the pair is spurred on by their personalities. Eva's inner reluctance is mirrored by the external acting out of Kevin. The relationship slowly becomes a battle of wills more than anything loving. As Kevin grows, he seemingly tests his mother. From his incessant screaming when in her arms (observe the silence when in his fathers), to the answering back, to the teenage aloofness he displays before the so called Thursday event. We question her issues, as only she that holds any fears or frets about Kevin and her selfishness is clearly evident. In the early stages everything done can be attributed to merely a child being a child. As the film continues one may ask is Kevin's behavior due to the coldness of his own mother? Is this attention seeking at it's most extreme?

Ramsay tackles the books obstacle of unreliable narrator with visual aplomb (Atonement's Seamus McGarvey as Cinematographer) and splintered narrative structure. Told in flashback; Eva is often introduced into scenes with obscured, out of focus shots that pulled into focus, highlighting the haze of memory. She is surrounded constantly by the bold uses of the cautionary colour of red. Blood? Danger? When we first meet Eva she's drenched in tomato clearly in love with the moment, later we see her washing and scraping red paint off her house. Interestingly enough both can be looked at the same way depending on how you feel on the situation.

A sparse score from Johnny Greenwood and a bout of sound design racks up the mood and tension with timebomb sounding sprinklers and teeth gritting scrubbing. The most telling use of sound is the awkward moment when Eva relieves the tension of a constantly screaming Kevin by standing next to construction work.

However, this is a film based mostly on performances. Swinton is in excellent form here. Eva is a selfish mother but one we still care for in a peculiar way. This is down to Swinton's ability to draw emotions from places that many wouldn't be able to. Her body language shows us a character battered by guilt. We grow frustrated by her impatience of her own child and yet as the film rolls to it's conclusion we still share a point. Ramsey's film stands on a knifes edge when it comes to the blame game. Ezar Millar shines well here as Kevin and does well to hide the menace under a veneer of teen aloofness. The film isn't as ambiguous with his character as it could be (Millar often looks just a bit one note evil) but this doesn't exclude him from doing the part well enough. John C Riley settles into a role that reminds us how well he can do oblivious (see Magnolia), and what is it with him this year with films with missing hamsters?

We need to talk about Kevin is one of the highlights of the year for me. A tense psychological drama which drums up difficult questions we often find reluctant to answer. Is Kevin a monster? To many, he is. If we were to read the paper of a true event that takes place within the movie we would denounce Kevin very quickly. We would quickly shove pop psychology (see: this entire blog) into the situation and make ourselves feel better as we try and make the matter more digestible. We have to as the real reasons are far too horrible to even try and rationalise. This film toys with our simple notions and knocks the foundations enough to disturb.