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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Movie Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin

The film's title refers to a conversation that tragically never takes place in this psychological drama from Scottish director Lynne Ramsay. Based on Lionel Shriver's bestselling novel, it's the story of a new mother's unhappiness with—and growing fear of—her firstborn son.

Anyone who's read the publicity knows that Kevin is a sociopath who goes on a murderous rampage at his high school, but the film is less about the plot than addressing this question: is evil a result of nature or bad parenting?

Tilda Swinton plays Eva Khatchadourian, an adventurer and author who gives up her freewheeling lifestyle for her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly) and reluctantly becomes a mother. The child, Kevin, spends the first few months of his life screaming constantly, driving Eva so crazy that she takes his stroller to a construction site so that the sound of the jackhammers will drown out his cries for a brief, blissful moment. Franklin dismisses Eva's complaints; when he takes Kevin in his arms, the boy is quiet. Eva's distress turns into hostility, and and at one point she tells him, "You make Mommy wish she was in France!"

Franklin wants Kevin to have a yard to play in, so he moves them from Manhattan to a huge house in the suburbs, further increasing Eva's feelings of isolation and resentment of her son. As he grows, it becomes clear that he detests her as much as she does him. He refuses to speak, play or even be potty-trained. She takes him to a pediatrician to find out if he's autistic, but the doctor doesn't find anything wrong with him. Her attempts to break through are met with steely-eyed silence and, when he gets older, hostile retorts, giving Eva feelings of guilt and anger in equal measure.

Kevin is a master manipulator, making the days hell for his mother but turning on the charm at night when Franklin returns home. He also obtains Eva's conspiratorial silence when, after she angrily throws him against the wall and breaks his arm, he tells his father that he did it himself. Thereafter, whenever she wants to expose Kevin's misdeeds, the boy merely rubs the scar on his arm and stares at her wordlessly.

The balance of power seems to tilt when Eva gives birth to a little girl they name Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich), who is everything Kevin isn't—blond, playful and possessed of a naturally sunny disposition.

But it doesn't last. For Kevin, Celia is just another person in the household he can be cruel to. He demeans her and plays cruel pranks. When Celia loses her left eye in a household "accident," Franklin blames Eva for leaving out the bottle of drain cleaner that caused it.

Franklin is also inadvertently responsible for arming Kevin with his means of destruction—noting his son's talent for archery, he buys him a top-of-the-line bow and arrow set for Christmas.

The events leading up to Kevin's ultimate act of violence are laid out by Ramsay at first in a jumbled, dreamlike manner, the pieces gradually falling into place as the story reaches its climax.

There are some wonderful scenes: the film opens with images of writhing bodies, drenched in what looks like blood. At first it seems like a horrible massacre, but when we see an ecstatic Eva rolling in the red liquid, we realize that she's participating in a folk ritual (specifically Spain's La Tomatina tomato-throwing festival).

There's another brilliant, surreal sequence in which an unnerved Eva, driving home at night, is confronted by a variety of ghostly spectres lurching out of the darkness, and it finally dawns on her that it's Halloween. When she reaches her house, the trick-or-treaters surround it like the ghouls in The Last Man On Earth, pounding on the doors and throwing rotten vegetables through the windows. With literally nothing to give, she turns off the lights and slides to the floor, waiting for the onslaught to end.

While the film occasionally lurches a bit too far toward the melodramatic, Ramsay keeps it mostly under tight control, with Swinton's performance serving as the anchor.

Swinton is nothing short of amazing as Eva. She's actually playing two characters in this film: the shell-shocked mother and the post-massacre pariah who is reduced to taking a menial job and hiding from her neighbors.

All the boys playing the various ages of Kevin deliver remarkable, cold-eyed performances, with Ezra Miller as the teenaged version particularly chilling. When Eva asks him why he does such horrible things, he answers, "There's no point...that's the point."

Reilly is good as her well-meaning but ineffectual husband, but he's practically a send-up of the 1950s sitcom father: he goes to an unknown (but obviously well-paying) job during the day, expecting to come home to a happy and well-adjusted family at night.

Gerasimovich brings an affecting realism to her role. In an extraordinarily touching scene, when Eva is carefully applying medicine to Celia's destroyed eye socket, the pain of the ordeal is made evident with a shot of the child's tiny hand clutching a bedsheet, but when it's over, she says, "Thank you, Mommy."

It'll be interesting to see if Swinton is nominated for an Oscar for this one. She certainly deserves to be, but dark, grim films like this are not usually something the Academy rewards.

As for the source of Kevin's evil? It's difficult to point to anything in particular...and that's the point.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Modern Family" it's not! A scary movie that would give anyone second thoughts about parenthood. Swinton is fascinating to watch throughout.

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