Friday, January 13, 2012
A Troubled Relationship
Late in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) tells her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) "You don't look happy," to which he replies, "Have I ever?" This brief exchange tells you all you need to know about the fractured relationship that is at the heart of this harrowing film, directed with great flair and dignity by Lynne Ramsay.
The film deals with how a couple reacts to the behavior of their first-born son, who seems to enjoy having the upper hand on his mother, behaving with wild abandon even as early as seven or eight years old, when he sprays paint all over his mother's room. While Eva is furious with him, her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) thinks she is overreacting, analyzing that young boys do foolish things from time to time - it's all part of growing up.
But Kevin continues to terrorize his mother, all the while showing affection for his father. This continues even after the couple's second child, a sweet girl named Celia, is born. Kevin's behavior becomes more bizarre, even to the point of bullying his younger sister. Eventually, he will commit a horrific crime, forcing Eva to endure the taunts of her fellow townspeople.
As grim a subject as this is, this is not a depressing film, thanks to the imaginative direction of Lynne Ramsay. The director tells this story in a non-linear fashion, opening with a flashback scene of Eva, in sheer ecstasy at the La Tomatina tomato-throwing festival in Spain. Shot in a dreamy slow motion, we see her being passed amidst the crowd, covered with the juice from the tomatoes. This same slow motion technique is used again in several flash forward images from time to time in the film, when we see the scene where Kevin has gone on his rampage; here the mood is much more eerie.
The film also works largely in part because of the remarkable performance of Tilda Swinton. Her character's joyous past, a fond memory throughout the film, will never be part of her life again, except perhaps in her dreams. She wanted to continue living in the city, but her husband convinced her that a large house in the country was perfect for them, especially if they wanted to have children. Eva performs her motherly duties, but deep down, her sense of pride is slowly evaporating; the present time in this film deals partly with her mundane job at a small, rather amateurish travel agency. Swinton has a stare and a clipped delivery that perfectly captures the angst of her character; she captivates the audience and you literally can't take your eyes off her at any moment. It would not be a stretch to say that both Swinton and Murray are co-auteurs of this work.
The film also deals with the difficult question of a mother's love when she knows her son is bad, if not downright evil. Should Eva have had this child? Since she did, how far will she go to show her maternal instincts in the face of his mocking behavior? These are not easy questions to answer and the filmmakers to their credit, do not shrink from these issues.
This is not to say that this is a film without its flaws. Sections - especially midway through the film - need to be tightened up, as they don't deliver much punch (the Christmas party scene at her new job adds little here). Also, when Eva walks into Kevin's room while he is away at school, the Beach Boys song "In My Room" is heard on the soundtrack. This is much too obvious, and besides the song has been used by other filmmakers to better effect (a much more convincing use of music is the inclusion of Buddy Holly's "Everyday" during the scene on Halloween night - this is a chilling moment in the film!).
But aside from these faults, We Need to Talk about Kevin works extremely well on a visual as well as a visceral level. In her last film, Morvern Caller (2002), Ramsay showed glimpses of her loosely structured style; that movie worked in stretches, but ultimately lacked cohesiveness. With this work, she has matured as a director, not only as a story teller, but even more so as a filmmaker who understands the power of the image (her director of photography Seamus McGarvey deserves much credit here, as his lighting creates the harrowing aspect Murray is after.) This is a film that is powerful, haunting and original. It is one of the best films of 2011.