12 October, 2011
We Need to Talk About Kevin
by Delme Stephenson
Runtime: 112 mins Director: Lynne Ramsey
‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ arrives to the UK already showered with critical acclaim from the Cannes film festival. The film centres on a troubled relationship between a mother and son. At its heart the film debates the idea of nature versus nurture; is Kevin born malevolent or has he been moulded into a monstrous young man? This question is reflected in two of the posters that have been released to promote the film in the UK. Both eagerly display blurbs from a number of respectable magazines and broadsheets, they absolutely glitter in five star accolades and positive pull quotes. ‘Stunning…A brilliant adaptation of my novel’ is perhaps the most notable, as it comes from Lionel Shiver whose ‘best-selling’ novel the film is based upon. Personally, I am not as enthusiastic as Shriver, ‘The Guardian’ or ‘The Times’. It seems I am clearly in the minority; back against the wall. I think I need to talk about Kevin.
It’s easy to understand why this film has garnered a lot of favourable media attention. It poses unnerving questions without having the desire to pander to the viewer. Director, Lynn Ramsey’s film reveals the events leading up to a Columbine-esque high school massacre and its aftermath. It’s told from the disturbed perspective of Eva (Tilda Swinton), the mother of Kevin (Ezra Miller), who may just be responsible for it all. Ramsey’s introduction to these events is superbly, if not remarkably directed. The first thirty minutes or so weaves fragmented, abstract moments from the past and present. Eventually these dreamlike (or nightmarish) moments coalesce into a linear narrative where we learn about the difficult and yet intriguing relationship between Eva and Kevin.
As producer and star, Tilda Swinton is simply mesmerising in the role of Eva. In one of the opening scenes she brings a level of acting that is rarely captured on screen. Sitting in a chair, facing an unseen character, she manages to bring to the surface - love, hate, disgust and fear (and so much more) in a shot that lasts no more than several seconds but languishes in the mind far after the credits roll. Swinton’s performance dominates the film; she is effortlessly able to navigate a role that takes her character through a spectrum of emotions. Ezra Miller, as the teenage Kevin of the piece displays an impressively controlled performance. Miller adds ambiguity to the character, as his Kevin bounces between mentally wounded teen to unlovable, unyielding monster. John C. Reilly’s performance as the family patriarch is problematic; however he is not to blame. His character’s blindness is frustrating, especially against the perverse love story and eternal war between Eva and Kevin. As such Reilly can only portray his character as deluded and frequently bewildered.
Lynn Ramsey is a highly regarded director, her previous films ‘Ratcatcher’ and ‘Morven Callar’ are a testament to this. ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ is a fascinating film and Ramsey is a talented director, yet while I found the film intriguing, I also found some of her choices frustrating. In Nicolas Roeg’s, ‘Don’t Look Now’ one of the constant motifs running through the film is of the colour red. It uses this motif fantastically well. Ramsey uses the same colour, to suggest something similar - death, guilt and paranoia. However the phrase ‘overkill’ comes to mind and it’s far from subtle. Additionally, the early scenes of a young Kevin as a toddler and later as a child are overcooked. For all intents and purposes he might as well have been called Damien.
I take issue with the narrative structure; although there are vicious surprises in store for the viewer - some of the mystery is lost because of its bold beautiful introduction. I understand that the act of evil itself is not what the film is directly trying to challenge but I was not surprised with the content of the film (and I should have been!) because the transition to a linear plotline squeezes all the mystery out of the film. This is a drama/thriller, yet the thriller aspect dissipates during the second act. Again, I also had a problem with a misplaced scene in which Kevin seemingly speaks to the audience, breaking the fourth wall in the process. Its not needed, neither are the additional themes it alludes to. This is a film that doesn’t need to be direct and often missteps in its bolder moments. However the violence is exceptionally well handled. It is constantly alluded to, but is rarely shown onscreen which thankfully adds intrigue back into the piece. For all its considerable strengths, at times ‘We Need to talk About Kevin’ is as unsubtle as a Michael Bay flick.
Ultimately the world is a better place with Lynn Ramsey, Tilda Swinton and ‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’. I welcome Ramsey’s return to the director’s chair. I found this film artistically challenging and at times powerfully understated. It is a genuinely well-crafted, disturbing film that occasionally and unfortunately loses its grasp. This is not a five star film. I know I’m going against the general critical consensus here, but it simply didn’t mesmerise me as it seemingly did with everyone in Cannes.