Sunday, January 29, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin Movie Review

Director Lynne Ramsay takes us on a journey through some dark places of the human condition, although it is not a story of her creation. She and Rory Kinnear co-wrote the screenplay for We Need to Talk About Kevin, an adaptation of the novel by Lionel Shriver. The story’s subject matter is how a mother copes with the aftermath of a murderous rampage conducted by her teenage son that left several people dead, his classmates among them.

Tilda Swinton plays Eva Katchadourian, the woman who has to live in a community that rejects her. She has red paint thrown on her house and car, her neighbors stare at her and wave hello merely out of some societally enforced manner of politeness. Occasionally she is accosted and told she’s going to rot in hell. To some extent she even believes this, as evidenced in the film’s only moment of humorous uplift when a couple of proselytizers ask at her front door if she knows where she’s spending the afterlife. But this isn’t about how a mother continues loving her child even after he’s done something so horrible. In fact, there’s some indication that she never had any genuine motherly affection for her first child.

Everything that occurs up to and including the incident is seen as flashbacks from Eva’s current life, which is a major step down from the affluent New York suburban life she was accustomed to. No longer living in a sprawling McMansion with lots of yard space she now lives in a tiny house alongside the railroad tracks and is ecstatic to be hired as a secretary in a low-rent travel agent’s. She tries to remain inconspicuous in her daily life as when she finds in the supermarket that someone has smashed all the eggs in her cart when she wasn’t looking. She buys them anyway and tediously picks bits of eggshell out of her mouth while eating her scrambled eggs, reminding us of her imprisoned son, who has a habit of biting his fingernails during her visit and placing the bits in a tidy row on the table.

This parallel that Ramsay lays out is part and parcel of Eva’s feelings of guilt for having neglected Kevin (played by three different actors at different ages, most notably Ezra Miller as a teen) after believing him to be nothing but antagonistic toward her. She has good reason for believing that Kevin is out to get her. As a colicky infant he never stops crying when she’s around. As a toddler he has a stubborn refusal to play games or say ‘mommy.’ Even his lack of potty training eventually comes to be seen is willfulness on his part and her anger causes her to accidentally break his arm – the most honest thing she ever did, according to Kevin.

The question of blame, which quite honestly is not the subject of the film, is not entirely clear. Obviously, when Kevin commits his crimes he is a minor, but certainly old enough to understand the difference between right and wrong. When Kevin is born we see Eva sitting in the hospital bed staring coldly into space while her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) cuddles and caresses their infant son. This established dynamic will continue right up until the crimes. Eva’s attitude toward the child is one of general distaste and ambivalence, but as he grows up the fault begins to lie more with him. Although as seen through Eva’s eyes, it’s hard to know if his transgressions are the innocent misbehavior of a child or the result of sociopathic tendencies.

There is strong suggestion that Kevin is an irredeemable sociopath. He displays absolutely no remorse for any bad behavior. His eyes even reveal a certain amount of glee. He demonstrates strong affection for his father. With Reilly cast in the role, Franklin is a big teddy bear of a dad with his mop of curly hair and pudgy frame – the kind of soft and cuddly man who would make an understanding and forgiving dad. But Kevin’s bond with his father eliminates the possibility of antisocial personality disorder unless it’s all a ruse designed to further alienate his mother. That seems plausible except that the behavior begins when he’s far too young to devise such a plan unless he’s meant to be imbued with evil of the supernatural order. However, We Need to Talk About Kevin is not Rosemary’s Baby or The Omen.

Ramsay’s direction has a tendency to be a bit tediously heavy-handed. She opens the film with a shot of Eva being carried over a crowd of exuberant tomato-covered festival goers at La Tomatina in Valencia, an image meant to illustrate her days of independence and freedom before starting a family. The color red becomes a motif throughout the film. It is the color of wrath, passion and guilt – all emotions that consume Eva and Kevin. White is used in abundance to contrast with the red, representing the lost innocence of starting a family and then obviously of Kevin crossing over from acts of malice to the disturbed actions of a criminal mind.

Though we are treated to hints of Kevin’s crime throughout the film, nothing can quite prepare you for the full brunt of what he actually does, revealed to us in the end. The acts themselves are left off screen, making it that much more disturbing when we see only Kevin’s expression and then the aftermath of what he’s wrought. The realization of just how horrible it is settles in the bottom of your stomach and keeps a grip on you. It held me longer than I would have expected.

What’s most powerful about the film is the sense that we can’t exactly lay the blame at anyone’s feet entirely. There are important questions to ask about these seemingly senseless acts and important issues to consider when it comes to criminal youth. I think there’s an extent to which the American justice system is misunderstood – though it is kept outside the scope of the film, it’s not clear exactly why Eva loses a punitive damages lawsuit as a result of the crimes. Ultimately it’s about how we handle these situations. It’s not enough, as we have a tendency to do, to say it was violent video games or absent parents that caused the behavior. This is a film that speaks to a much deeper level of understanding and refuses to be satisfied with easy answers. Because of that, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a film that will insidiously seep into your consciousness long after you’ve left the theater.

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