WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN
Eva (Tilda Swinton) is an anguished mother whose son was a difficult, abrasive child from the start and grew into a teenager distanced from her. Kevin (Ezra Miller) is cold and manipulative towards her, more so than towards his father Franklin (John C. Reilly). After Kevin goes on a high-school killing spree, Eva tries to deal with her grief -- and feelings of responsibility and guilt for her son's actions.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
All mothers, in my experience, are quick to feel guilt for the sins of commission or omission by their children. It's an occupational hazard. It is easy to imagine that a normal mother (not a Melbourne crime family matriarch, though) would be shattered by her son killing his school mates (or even his school enemies, for that matter).
In that respect, this story is not based on a remarkable premise. Where filmmaker Lynne Ramsay deviates from expectations is in the way the story is told. She fractures the story, like crumpling a jigsaw, and lays it out in scattered pieces, obliging the audience to try and glue it together into an emotionally and structurally coherent work. The film defies that attempt because it is meant to. Ramsay aspires to make a film that is nuanced and opaque; not linear but chaotic like the souls she is dealing with.
The result, for me at least, is a missed opportunity to explore the darkest corners of the human condition: the mother of evil. Given that the moving image is the most adept artform capable of manipulating time (with flashbacks, etc), it is tempting to use this power to weave a kind of time tapestry that shows the filmmaker as clever, inventive, artistic, free of constraint ..... It is easy to make it also show the filmmaker seem self indulgent.
Ramsay's approach robs the underlying work (the novel which I have not read) seem overstated and obvious, heavy handed and worst of all, inauthentic. As I could not find any veracity in the various elements, I got bored, which is as near to damnation as any artist can get.
From the caricature of the evil toddler (suitable for a role in a genuine horror film) to the shallow and artificial presentation of Franklin (John C. Reilly) the husband, the film fails to secure any foothold in its own emotional landscape. The dislocation between the characters is thumped onto the cinematic table, and Kevin's psychopathic tendencies are pumped out like sausages. With the dissonant shifts in time, we are unable to adjust to the emotional milestones of the film - we can't find them.
Whatever feelings of empathy we may begin to harbour for the tortured Eva (Tilda Swinton) are quickly drowned in ennui. Similarly, any insights the author may have tried to provide are engulfed in the artifice of the film. The fact it was selected for Competition at Cannes (2011) suggests that Ramsay's intentions are satisfied: it's been accepted at that altar to cinema as a work of considerable artistic merit. I beg to differ.
Review by Louise Keller:
There's a scene when two neatly suited strangers knock on the door of Eva's (Tilda Swinton) house and ask her if she knows where she is going in the after life. Yes, I do, she retorts: "I'm going straight to hell." Hell is where Eva has been living for years, and is the subject of Lynne Ramsay's unsettling film about a mother living with the guilt for the horrors inflicted by her nihilistic teenage son in a violent killing spree. It's a portrait of a woman in pain, unsure whether she is responsible for any part of the monstrous person her son has become but is willing to accept abuse or a slap from a stranger in the street without a murmur.
Based on a novel by Lionel Shriver, the film screened in competition at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival to some acclaim. It is a film to which mothers in particular will connect. The narrative is not free flowing but shows us in snapshot (from the mother's point of view), key moments that haunt her. Ramsay establishes a disturbing mood from the outset, when a long, sheer curtain dances ominously in the breeze before an open door. But it is some time before we understand all the elements of the story that unfold like a puzzle in different time frames.
In flash back, we meet Eva in a new relationship with Franklin (John C. Reilly) that results in a pregnancy. Motherhood doesn't come naturally to Eva who resists from the start and whose conflicts are exacerbated when her screaming child is non-responsive, destructive and manipulative. What is the essence of evil? Where does it begin? Kevin is a child with a demonic aura who knows exactly how to drive his mother to the edge of insanity. There's a detached edge to the relationships with Eva no match for the monstrous child whose mind games are beyond comprehension. He even makes her complicit after she feels guilty from physically punishing him.
Swinton is extraordinary as Eva, who walks through her life as though she were in a catatonic state, unconscious of her appearance or her right to have a life of her own. The moment near the beginning of the film when Eva washes her face and her features morph into those of her son, are overtly chilling. Ezra Miller, who plays the menacing teenage Kevin is a fearful presence on screen. Kevin is the wedge between Eva and Franklin; their relationship never stands a chance.
Violence is implied, rather than seen, although the colour red features prominently throughout the film - from the red paint thrown on the façade of Eva's house and car, to the blood red tins of tomato soup, lined up in uniform horror in the supermarket aisle. This is a complex and disturbing film that compounds as it goes along. It's not an easy film to watch but yet another great platform for Swinton and a statement from Ramsay.
First Published in the Sun-Herald
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WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (MA15+)
CAST: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller, Ursula Parker, Siobhan Fallon, Ashley Gerasimovich
PRODUCER: Jennifer Fox, Luc Roeg, Robert Salerno
DIRECTOR: Lynne Ramsay
SCRIPT: Lynne Ramsay, Rory Kinnear (novel by Lionel Shriver)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Seamus McGarvey
EDITOR: Joe Bini
MUSIC: Jonny Greenwood
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Judy Becker
RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Hopscotch
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: November 17, 2011