Monday, January 30, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Tilda Swinton's ghostly face can tell volumes more than can ever be written on a page.  Within the small details of her androgynous features, there's always a weird collection of tics and emotive clues to her characters, and whatever alien talents she inhabits, one can never call any of her creations less than interesting.  That face is the primary focal point and the main reason to talk about We Need to Talk About Kevin, a strange art house horror-existential crisis potboiler from filmmaker Lynne Ramsay based upon the novel of the same name by Lionel Shriver.  A fussy, more is more piece of finely-tuned pretentiousness that works (even at its looniest) thanks to Swinton's pure conviction, and indeed that face.  Hard and chilling and told without the treat of accessibility in sight, this an odd parental angst\nightmare drama that feels like the love child of The Omen and Elephant mixed with Euro-nuanced indie twitches.  A more sober plot description of We Need to Talk About Kevin is that it's a before and after recount of a neglectful mother and her disconnected relationship with her sociopath son who would become a nonchalant monster.  The filmmakers offer a thoughtful, if chilly mediation on the argument of nature vs. nurture, an idiosyncratic difficult doozy of a film without definition, but motivated by mood.

The best compliment that can be said about We Need to Talk About Kevin in the clearest sense is that I would find it nearly impossibly not to have an instant guttural reaction.  For filmmaking this good and a subject and treatise so eery and troubling, one might feel the need to shout for joy for the next wave of independent filmmaking, or jam their fingers in their eyes in discomfort.  For a film that's so confounding, there's so many questions left unsolved...why is the color red to predominant in the film (from the red paint thrown across Swinton's Eva's home and car window to the strangely evocative red mush slopped about in the film's carnal prologue), and why is food so bizarrely featured and it's messiness so sharply captured in close-up?  Yet for everything seemingly strange visual tic, and there's plenty more-- including a soundtrack of offbeat tunes offset to sequences of unhappiness and despair-- there's this added psychological mystery that shreds through a wacked artifice.  And again Swinton's face place a picture.  The films cuts back and forth in the span of a nearly sixteen years, but settles on a present-day gloom where Eva is alone, forced to deal with what she created, and how she may have caused it.

We cut back to more carefree days of a la-la-land party girl Eva, where she seduces a wimpy schlep named Franklin (John C. Rielly)-- they dance in the streets and kiss and hump happily and without a care in the world.  That is until a baby boy springs about.  Withdrawn and disconnected from parenting a child, a thought perhaps too bourgeois for Eva (or Swinton?) and settling with a cowardly man in nondescript suburbia is of little interest.  And it's clear (or not) that Kevin, her misbegotten offspring is aware of mom's disinterest; or perhaps he's just a monster from the start.  There's a rabble-rousing scene of Eva pushing her screaming child's stroller through a street of road work that's obvious and artful at the same time.  Kevin grows up into a nerd-chic, holier than thou spoiled teenage (played by Ezra Miller, with the same androgynous chip on his should as his mum) and scowls and screeches his hatred and unhappiness with mom in such over-stylized line readings it hard to tell whether it's a point of parody or drama that he's given such free-reign.  His ultimate showdown is a tragic high-school massacre, and while it's a subtly hinted Columbine commentary, there's hardly any mystery that the young man is deranged.

Fortunately for the films credit, it's Swinton's story, and the aftermath sequences of Eva trying to find employment, trying to find comfort and shield the grief and pain for the atrocities she's (whether fairly or not) responsible for is the far more compelling story.  It's in Eva's refrain, and lack of defense, of naysayers and the grudge-filled townspeople around her that's startling and unrelentingly emotional.  For when Ramsay calms on the gorgeously-if-needlessly staged grandeur of her talents and hallucinogenic over-stylization, and focuses on that face, We Need to Talk About Kevin feels like a lived-in thesis on grief.  For Swinton's credit, she refuses to confine her character on either side of responsibility and gives a warmly nuanced and graceful portrayal of woman final understanding the affects of misguided parenting.  Miller is chilling and effective in the sense that one should believe he did exactly what was required of him, but there's a startling amount of questions unresolved (either by choice, or by casting) of the Point A to Point B cause and relation of how his Kevin went so far.  Like Elephant, Gus Van Sant's tranquil depiction of a high school shooting spree, Kevin provides no psychological clues...unlike Elephant, Kevin doesn't even provide a snapshot of his madness.

And that's the main conundrum for a film so purposeful and elegantly made...a film that feels exactly as intended within every edit, every musical cue, ever mad splash of red and odd displayed crumble of food.  Does one condemn a film for doing exactly as one presumes it intends to do, even if the end result is a small state of madness of itself?  We Need to Talk About Kevin is a film of many values, and certainly a finely crafted piece of whatchamacallit, but is it mere high end exploitation masquerading as art, or art transcending exploitative subject matter in an attempt to find truth within its tics.  Whatever the case, that face mesmerizes, and the subject deserves a proper talking about...B+

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