Friday, February 3, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN              B+          
Great Britain  USA  (112 mi)  2011  ‘Scope d:  Lynne Ramsay

“Way worse than I imagined,” was the comment heard coming out of the theater, which perhaps unintentionally perfectly expresses the point of the film, where the words of the title suddenly take on greater magnitude.  A decidedly difficult film, told completely out of sequence, which has a jarring effect on the viewer, keeping them continually off balance, as the story has a fractured and impressionistic style, revealed only in pieces.  It’s simply impossible to get comfortable with this film due to the harsh and uncompromisingly bleak nature of the story, despite the beautifully chilly and austere production values that might resemble a Kubrick film, cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, and once again a superlative musical track from Jonny Greenwood, but the downbeat mood, especially from Tilda Swinton’s continuously frustrated portrayal of the mother of a loathsome child Kevin, a son who hates her from birth, couldn’t be more oppressive.  Based on the best-selling novel by the same name from Lionel Shriver, adapted by the director and Rory Stewart Kinnear, the film hints all along of greater catastrophes lurking ahead.  Ramsay interestingly presents the town’s hateful reaction to Swinton before revealing what horrifying event they are responding to.  But all along, Kevin devises ways to express his contempt for his mother, while switching gears to become the supposedly happy and perfect son to his clueless father, John C. Reilly.  In another realm, this would be a child of the devil, told with horror subtext, where grotesque exaggerations would fill the screen along with impaled bodies, but here what damage Kevin does is almost always offscreen, where the audience is forced to draw their own conclusions.       
Originally trained as a photographer, Ramsay reworks the text into a highly stylized, contemporary visual world, including the perfect suburban home that becomes infested with dread, like a haunted house, where Kevin becomes the personification of evil.  Moving freely between the present and the past, Swinton experiences her own horrors from Kevin early on, where he simply refuses to do anything she asks, but she matches his vitriolic meanness directed at her with her own inappropriate behavior, growing more irritated over time, as the two develop their own language of avoiding one another.  In one of the strangest sequences of the film, Swinton is reading him a bedtime story, where in reality her eloquence with language is renowned, like listening to the voices of Laurence Olivier or Orson Welles, but this time Kevin grows so attached to the lurid description of bows and arrows in Robin Hood that he doesn’t want his mother to stop, actually curling up next to her in a sign of affection.  Afterwards, however, he remains his meanspirited and completely detached self, feeling nothing but contempt for his family members.  His father, however, buys him a bow and arrow set, becoming extremely proficient over time, which has the effect of introducing firearms to a mentally unstable kid.  Jumping ahead, while we never see any traces of Kevin with other students in high school, the audience is instead treated to the aftereffects of a horrendous, catastrophic event at the school which turns the entire town against Swinton, where interestingly Ramsay uses the lovely innocence of Buddy Holly’s song Buddy Holly - Everyday on YouTube (2:13) as a prelude to the event.

While the film recounts shocking and astonishing events by connecting personal family tragedy with the public’s reaction to unspeakable horrors, one might wonder why there’s an absence of psychiatric intervention, as this kid is definitely a danger to himself and others, and while that may be true, he’s also likely a smart and gifted student and not exactly a willing participant for treatment, especially at an early age where he’s already learned to manipulate adults through his own behavior, so why would he want to change that?  Swinton grows so suspicious of him that she searches his room for any sign of something amiss, intriguingly set to the Beach Boys In My Room - The Beach Boys on YouTube (2:10), where it’s as if his room has been wiped clean of any and all forensic evidence, knowing this would be one of the first places people would look.  His entire life shows a cunning and willful emotional detachment, which Swinton tries to match in personal indifference by avoiding having her buttons pushed, but she’s hopelessly drowning in the turmoil of her own shortcomings, feeling completely powerless and inept at being able to reach this kid.  What’s evident, however, is that this is a story of communal judgment, where she’s been judged an incompetent mother by the entire town, subject to sneers and stares, even getting socked in the face, and worse, developing a witch hunt mentality where she’s judged responsible for the behavior of her sociopathic son.  Swinton herself may be her own worst critic, grown weary from continually blaming herself, expressed through her cold and severe manner, but what’s inevitable is every day having to face the horror, guilt, and shame of living with a world soiled and contaminated by your own offspring.  Nine years since her last film, the first to branch away from working class Scotland, Ramsay’s unflinching vision spares no one and offers no easy answers, and is in itself a horrifyingly bleak and brutal film. 

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