Saturday, October 1, 2011

Film Review: "We Need to Talk About Kevin" (****)

I was in a noticeably uncomfortable position in the earliest hours of Sunday morning in Portsmouth, NH. Waiting by a harshly lit streetlamp for a solid two hours after "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is a position I'd not wish amongst many, if any at all. To say that Lynne Ramsay has made her return with a vengeance would be a gross understatement. In that mystified delirium where the experiences I had been made witness to were drunkenly shooting straight through my mind, the only response I could relate to twitter was this: "I was not prepared for what was beyond the curtain."

That statement was perhaps not the most informative to send out to the uninformed masses of twitter, but I doubt I could have formed anything more coherent for my mindset in that moment. The first image we see of the film is this ethereal white curtain wavering aside an open window. It's a relatively tame image at the time, and the immediate decoder in me is dumbly thinking, "Oh, they're pulling back the curtain to show us what it's veiling." As simple as that sounds, it is in a way true. It's significance is not wholly known at the start, but once you're past it, there's absolutely no going back. You're there to the grim end. It's the only warning the audience is going to get.

And assuming you make it into the theater, you're well aware of the film's content matter. At this point, it hardly seems like a spoiler, but the film follows Eva Khatchadourian, the mother of a 16-year-old sociopath named Kevin. In case that didn't give it away, Kevin has been a very bad boy, setting up a massacre upon his school, killing and injuring several of his classmates. But the film isn't really about the community response or the grief for those dead. In fact, it's hard to call for any coherent plotline, as the film immediately from the being takes a hypnotically fragmented approach.

It's worth mentioning that Ramsay wonderfully lets the audience discover what's going on, rather than telling them so plainly as many others would. She uses this strange daze of fractured scenes to intentionally disorient the audience, and it's all working towards a goal of capturing Eva's mindset. Those who are immediately put off by the initially affronting overhead shot of several people bathing themselves in bright reads dashes of tomato will not enjoy the hour to come. A world of discomfort is built around Eva, both willingly and forcefully. There's a strong contrast between the present day guilt-ridden Eva and the victimized Eva of the past.

From long before birth, you can see a regret in Eva about the prospect of motherhood. While other tentative mothers are gawking gleefully at their bloated bellies, Eva remains dismissive and uncertain. Even as a baby, screaming insanely to point of frustration, Eva feels a central disconnect with Kevin, made evident by her attempts to drown out the noise, however shortly it may be, with the relative music of jackhammers on the sidewalk construction. In the wrong hands, this film could've painted Eva as ultimate victim or unsympathetic villain. Lynne Ramsay strays wisely away from those questions, more focused on giving an internalized experience from Eva.

Red plays a strong role in the psych portrayal throughout the film, though never once being from the sight of blood. Eva takes desperate steps throughout the film's post-massacre storyline to eliminate the traces of red splashed cruelly upon her car and front porch. This is all told adjacently beside the gradual progression of Kevin from his toddler to his teen years. He at first seems like this silent symbolization of childish stagnation and frustration, until finally reaching Ezra Miller's underlying discomfort as subtly psychotic killer in the works, tormenting manipulatively his little sister and shining an observant eye on his main nemesis of Eve. It's a showdown between these two, and a battle for dominance.

The first half of the film mostly maintains the disorienting and drunken affect on the viewer before sobering up just slightly in the second half. There's no definite break where the film drops off in creativity, and very much maintains its startling impression through to the very finish. The audience knows where things end up, but that doesn't matter at all in the endgame of the piece. Ramsay, and original author Lionel Shriver, hold the emotional hammer precariously overhead through to the end, at which point it reduces the entire audience to a quivering mess, myself most prevalently. I feel no shame in expressing my own horror on behalf of Eva.

While it's certainly true that this is not Lynne Ramsay's best film, and it in fact might be her weakest to date, but do not begin to let doubt quiver in on that statement. Ramsay goes for a wider scope here than she has before, and despite handling her most terrorizing source material, it's still her most audience accessible film to date. It's almost her introduction to the wider world beyond her already avid admirers from "Morvern Callar" and "Ratcatcher". Quite a lot of that affect may be due to D.P. Seamus McGarvey, well know for his work on "Atonement" more than anything else, until now that is. His colourful gaze nicely accentuates Ramsay's already widely famed mood-tuning.

The film deserves excessive accolades for Joe Bini's seemingly effortless splicing together of scenes, images, and fragments. Same for the sound job behind it all, with early sounds raised having stronger significance in hindsight. Ramsay continues her odd job of out-of-place song selections, quite often to delicious, or else understandable, effect. I could go on about the haunting new meaning instilled to Buddy Holly, but I was in fact more consistently interested in the sequences chronicling Eva's post-Kevin world. As country music proves to be a sort of positive escapism for her, you can tell we're truly in hell. Jonny Greenwood's score almost takes a backseat, but he establishes his presence strongly throughout when it counts most.

Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller are a wonderful onscreen pair, as both combatants and simple mother-son coupling. On the other hand, there's absolutely nothing simple about their relationship. Swinton plays Eva with a steely sense of vulnerability, and rather than being simply a stern influence on Kevin, she expresses an outright hatred of him at times. There is a vague love that's there, and only rarely does it rise up. Miller does some wonderful scenery chewing in the time he's afforded, acting as this malevolent presence bent on the destruction of the woman who created him.

John C. Reilly does seem like an odd addition to this team, and he indeed doesn't have the same weight as Swinton or Miller. Then again, he's not really supposed to. He's meant as this sweet sense of optimism and eager parenting, as opposed to strong parenting. He plays his part modestly, and I have a hard time imagining it any other way. "We Need to Talk About Kevin" does soar on the wings of Swinton and Miller, but much more on Lynne Ramsay. She's had a rare and admirable patience in her filmmaking, and the amount of time it took to get this project off the ground shows it. It's nice to know there are some directors who consider each film a labor of love. This is no different, and the audience pays for it willingly lost sleep.

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