Film Review – We Need to Talk About Kevin
When you have Tilda Swinton’s face available to you for use as a storytelling tool, you employ it for all that it’s worth. Lynne Ramsay, in her new film We Need to Talk About Kevin, finally opening in the U.S. today, understands this truth. Swinton is Eva Khatchadourian, a woman who has been through some type of terrible trauma that the film takes its time spelling out. She wakes up alone on the couch in her small, untidy house, seemingly hungover, with the definite aura of someone for whom this is not an uncommon occurrence. Something in the light in the room is off; it dawns that this is because the sunlight streams through windows that have been splattered with red paint. The marks of a community lashing out against a pariah. And in Swinton’s face, weariness.
When Eva visits her teenage son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), in prison, and we see how the people she runs into going about her daily business feel entitled to abuse her, we start to piece things together. It begins to become clear that Kevin did something horrible, and that his mother is perceived to shoulder the blame. This is what the film is about, really: the existence of a mother who has failed in the eyes of society, whose only emotions should now be guilt and shame. Through flashbacks of the life before this shattering act of Kevin’s, the viewer can form their own opinion of Eva’s culpability, if any. Once, she had a husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly). They loved each other. They had a son, and then they had a daughter. They had the big house with the big yard that everyone is supposed to want. What demons did that world hold that led to this? And could its loss have been prevented somehow?
In the present timeline, many scenes represent a kind of heightened reality. We are in Eva’s living nightmare, as kids banging at the door on Halloween seem like hostile forces ready to break in, or the corner of a rumpled travel poster blowing in the breeze from a fan brings back memories of her own, long-past travels—another lost reality. As the timeline of the flashbacks grows closer to meeting up with the present, dread and tension build. There’s no avoiding the day when everything changes; as much as we would like the characters to have the kind of prescience that the film’s structure gives to the audience, they cannot. And yet, after the fact—the guilt comes anyway.
I watched the film from the perspective of someone who is a great fan of Lionel Shriver’s novel, which is 400 pages of Eva re-telling the events of the story in chronological order via multiple letters to one person, as she tries to explain herself. The reader hears everything from her, is subject to only her thoughts—and extremely detailed ones—about her life with Franklin before and after Kevin came along. The film, obviously, cannot go into the amount of detail that the novel does about Kevin’s childhood, Eva’s relationship with him, and her conflicting feelings about being a mother even before she ever was one. Ramsay’s bold approach to the source material dismantles it and presents its core emotions with incredible succinctness. I was surprised, and a bit impressed, that the film does not use voiceover to include more of the main character’s thought process from the novel. Though at times I wanted to see more of certain interactions, to go a little deeper, the spare approach works. In Swinton, Ramsay has an actor who conveys depths of character without needing exposition to spell it out. Miller, too, needs little help in putting forth the image of the inscrutable Kevin. Both actors are adept at seeming just slightly incongruous with their surroundings, carrying a bit of tension or bristling against things in a way others don’t. Ramsay displays her actors well while embracing a tone that puts the viewer on edge, everything uneasy and with little guidance as to what the next scene will hold. Bright pop music on the soundtrack often helps to push things further to that edge. We are simply never comfortable during this film.
There’s been some warranted anger that Lynne Ramsay was never seriously considered as a contender for a nomination for Best Director in the run-up to Oscar season. Some of that may be due to the, in my opinion, bizarrely stupid release schedule that kept the film from being available to audiences (except for a brief New York/LA Oscar-qualifying run) until after the nominees were announced. Granted, this film was not going to be a box office sensation no matter what, but offering no chance for it to enter the bigger conversation outside of those who got to it in their pile of awards season screeners makes no sense. In the UK, where the film opened in late October, it received BAFTA nominations for best director, lead actress, and British film; Ramsay also won the award for best director at the British Independent Film Awards, where the film had multiple other nominations. It received no Oscar nominations at all.
This is a challenging film, far more so than most of those whose directors were nominated for Oscars (with the exception of The Tree of Life). The controlled but heightened tone, with just a twinge of derangement, is unfortunately not the type of work the Academy seemed interested in rewarding, especially for 2011, The Year of Grandiose Nostalgia. It is, however, at the very least more impressive than Woody Allen shooting his actors playing dress-up. (Oh, he also had to valiantly strive to make Paris look beautiful. That’s right. Yeah, he deserves a nomination for that.) Though I personally wanted to see a bit more of the story play out on screen, that is my fan-of-book bias talking and an issue solely with the screenplay (co-written by Ramsay and Rory Kinnear). The direction of said screenplay is impeccable. Ramsay’s ability to invoke emotion visually represents exactly the type of film direction I firmly believe we should be rewarding, not ignoring. Here’s hoping her next project finds a more open-minded Academy.
Final Grade: A-