REVIEW: “We Need to Talk About Kevin” (****)

Posted by · 6:10 pm · May 12th, 2011

Cannes Film Festival

Lionel Shriver’s 2003 bestseller “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a rare pop novel indeed: a nippy, low-comfort social essay that lures readers into messily untied arguments on topical subject matter the talk-show circuit would have far less trouble resolving. It might have made for a cluttered, stentorian film about things, particularly as the novel’s candid, epistolary format — a series of unreturned letters from an emotionally paralyzed wife and mother to her absent husband — lends itself to reams of dense, subtext-securing voiceover.

That knowledge makes the already graceful cinematic language of Lynne Ramsay’s film adaptation (the Scottish director’s third feature, and her first in a regrettable period of nine years) all the more remarkable: altering not a jot of narrative detail, Ramsay and co-writer Rory Kinnear have ingeniously hollowed out Shriver’s wordy text into a largely tacit, imagistic memory collage that substitutes sound and vision for dialogue as extensively as possible. The woman who had a similarly unlikely literary hit, Alice Sebold’s “The Lovely Bones,” taken out of her hands by commercially-minded producers has exacted her revenge in the most rewarding of ways.

Even if you’re not among the masses who read the novel, chances are you already know the film hinges on a fictional high school massacre executed by a sociopathic 15 year-old boy, and that it uses a fragmented, both-ends-burning structure to map out the causes and the aftermath of the tragedy from his mother’s point of view. If this is news to you, however, it’s debatable how long you’d need to watch Ramsay’s interpretation before grasping these fundamentals: she courageously opens the film as a kind of saturated, sensory tone poem, splicing together oblique snapshots from past, nearer past and present against brilliantly layered sound design, the bland sputtering of garden sprinklers its unsettling leitmotif.

No explanatory route is drawn between shots of an ecstatic Tilda Swinton bathing, Christ-like, in a street of pulped tomatoes at Valencia’s La Tomatina festival, and the dour, lanker-haired woman scrubbing splattered red paint from the windshield of her car. As in her 1999 debut “Ratcatcher” and, particularly, her 2002 Alan Warner adaptation “Morvern Callar,” Ramsay and her peak-form DP Seamus McGarvey rely on our intuitive emotional response to composition and color (in this case, myriad applications of fire-engine red) to connect events.

It’s a high-risk strategy, vulnerable to accusations of both wilful obscurity and unsubtle schematism, but it’s an appropriate way to meet Swinton’s chilly, ungiving protagonist Eva Khatchadourian, a successful travel writer unable to mask or counter her dismay at the invasiveness of motherhood. The earliest warning signs that Eva and her newborn son Kevin lack some connective tissue are aural ones: a particularly inspired scene has Eva thrilling to the cacophony of jackhammers on the pavement as they partially (and only partially) drown out the baby’s ceaseless siren of screams.

The first half-hour of the film is so fragile, so immaculate in its visual and sonic conception, it seems impossible that Ramsay will keep it up. And indeed she doesn’t, though not through creative neglect so much as narrative necessity: a story must still get told, after all, and as Kevin grows (via a plausibly continuous succession of extraordinary child performers) from tiny, squealing symbol of defiance to Ezra Miller’s malevolent foil, “Kevin” shifts into a less architected but still riveting domestic battle between mother and son.

Whether Kevin has been born a bad seed or irreparably tainted by reluctant mothering is a chicken-or-egg question that filmmaker and author alike steadfastly refuse to answer, but it doesn’t prevent the film from cheekily toying with tropes of the demon-child horror subgenre — down to the dramatic strings stabs and curlicues of Jonny Greenwood’s inventive art-blues score. (Those who now can’t hear The Mamas and the Papas without conjuring memories of “Morvern Callar” will be pleased to hear Ramsay remains a master of the misplaced music cue: Buddy Holly comes in for particularly off-message treatment.) What makes this shift in tone and emphasis penetrating, and not merely lurid, is that Eva is scarcely less alien or antisocial a figure than her boy; the pairing of Swinton and Miller’s respective birch-like physiques and dry-ice vocal delivery is a casting masterstroke matched for intelligence by the performances themselves.

Swinton has been so predictably expert at negotiating panic in spiritually trapped female characters of late, it feels almost redundant to point out that she has done so again here. Still, it’s unusual to see her this defeated, vacillating between equally crippling levels of self-awareness and self-deception, though unafraid to play up Eva’s resistibility — even with a character whose scale of human suffering could help net her the Best Actress Oscar nomination she’s been owed for several years.

18 year-old Miller, his feline eyes wetly taking in the particulars of every frame in which he appears, makes good on his promise in “Afterschool” and “City Island,” locating grim humor and fleeting insight in repeated passive-aggressive face-offs with Swinton. (Only John C. Reilly, oddly cast as a kind of rarely-there, good-ol’-boy type, feels ill-used here.)

If “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is to be labelled any one person’s triumph, however, it must be Lynne Ramsay’s: this question-riddled film may not have quite the environmental specificity of “Ratcatcher” and her shorts, or the tingly intimacy of “Morvern Callar,” but it’s the bigger, broader application of her five-sense style she needed to make for this long-awaited career re-arrival. It’s a testament to the extent that she’s sinuously rerouted her harsh source material that full knowledge of the outcome didn’t loosen the knot in this viewer’s stomach from first pristine frame to last; “I want to throw up,” I remarked to a friend upon exiting the theater. “But in a good way.”

[Photos: Artificial Eye]

→ 19 Comments Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Filed in: Reviews

19 responses so far

  • 1 5-12-2011 at 6:31 pm

    Dylan said...

    I’ve been waiting for this review literally since the second that I woke up. And as usual, Guy doesn’t disappoint. I think I’ve read every review written about this movie so far and I am so so so very excited to see it.

  • 2 5-12-2011 at 6:39 pm

    americanrequiem said...

    things are sounding unanimously good here, excited

  • 3 5-12-2011 at 6:41 pm

    Nick Davis said...

    …whereas, in equal but opposite tribute, this is the only review I’m reading, because I want to come into the movie as cold as possible, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to hear whatever Guy had to say. Have the book checked out from the library. Now if only I can figure out a plane flight to Cannes, especially if it’s $8.

  • 4 5-12-2011 at 6:41 pm

    Nick Davis said...

    (That was meant to follow Dylan’s comment)

  • 5 5-12-2011 at 7:49 pm

    Just Another Film Buff said...

    An amazing review, onf of your fienst, Guy. And given that this is a dispatch is pretty stunning.

  • 6 5-12-2011 at 8:10 pm

    Sieben said...

    Morvern Callar was so wonderful and unique and this film’s reception has been so enthusiastic that it’s skyrocketed almost to the top of my most anticipated films of the year.

    Marvelous review, as ever. Your Cannes coverage is among the most engaging and thoughtful out there.

  • 7 5-12-2011 at 8:13 pm

    Sieben said...

    Also, Guy, which Un Certain Regard films are you planning to get a look at? I realize that it’s a little bit futile to ask about “plans” in an environment like Cannes, but there must be a few that you’re more intent on catching.

  • 8 5-12-2011 at 8:16 pm

    Speaking English said...

    ***Those who now can’t hear The Mamas and the Papas without conjuring memories of “Morvern Callar”…***

    Interesting. I actually can’t recall the scene you’re talking about. For me The Mamas and the Papas are tied to “Chungking Express.”

  • 9 5-12-2011 at 10:21 pm

    Cielo said...

    I’m loving how interestingly spare and stark the film is sounding so far. Do you have any more information about the score? Is there a lot of score or is it used sparingly? Is it striking or more ambient?

  • 10 5-13-2011 at 12:21 am

    Marshall1 said...

    I think they use the Mamas and the Papas’ Dedicated to the one I Love in the Morvern Callar trailer…

  • 11 5-13-2011 at 3:57 am

    ChrisG said...

    Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy! Great read, Guy. As well to the entire Cannes coverage so far. Fantastic work.
    I’m with Nick on this. Guy’s review will be the only one I’ll read till the film hits theatres. So excited!

    One question to Guy, though: How did they handle the narration, meaning Eva’s narration and the letters? Letter-writing scenes? Voice over? I had an argument with a friend the other day, who feared that the film would settle for a “Kevin is all evil” solution, if it were to drop some kind of subjective instrument. Some kind of indication to the unrealiable point of view of Eva’s letters. – And: Do I already want to know this?

  • 12 5-13-2011 at 4:20 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Thanks, everyone, for the very kind responses — particularly reassuring on this occasion as my eyelids very getting very heavy as I finished it at an insane hour last night, and I feared it might read as total gibberish.

    Sieben: Having committed to a Competition critics’ poll, I have to prioritise those films while making room for writing — so my Un Certain Regard schedule is a little on the ad hoc side. I’ve already seen Restless and Toomelah, while ones I’m certainly not missing include Hors Satan, Martha May Marcy Marlene, Skoonheid and Oslo, 31 August.

    Cielo: Very sparingly applied, but often quite abrasive (and guitar-based) when it’s there.

    Marshall1: As you suspect, that’s the track I’m referring to, but it’s not used in the trailer — it’s an evocative running theme in the film itself.

    ChrisG: No narration, no voiceover. Ramsay has (very successfully, I think) translated Eva’s perspective into imagery, but it’s best if you see for yourself. (I hope that doesn’t sound smug: I know how tedious it is to wait!)

  • 13 5-13-2011 at 6:22 am

    Michael said...

    perfect review Guy! This year already seems more satisfying than last year’s Cannes film festival, and it’s only the 3rd day LOL. I do hope that you also get to see some of the other interesting sidebar films although I completely understand the main competition is your priority (since you’ve got to file your scores into the ioncinema grid) – but I cannot wait to hear your thoughts on Hors Satan. Bruno Dumont is one of the most interesting filmmakers working today and Hadewijch was one of my favorite films from last year (released in the US at least.) It is definitely one of the most anticipated films for me and I look forward to the response it gets. Keep up the brilliant work, and don’t forget to sleep and eat!

  • 14 5-13-2011 at 6:36 am

    Matthew Starr said...

    Any word yet on on U.S distribution for this film?

  • 15 5-13-2011 at 8:47 am

    Marshall1 said...

    No Guy, I was just responding to English’s comment. This is going to be my most anticipated movie of the year. Thanks for the review!

  • 16 5-13-2011 at 9:05 am

    Pope said...

    Maaaaaaaaaaaannnn, I’d love to read your review Guy, but my excitement is too high at this point. I’ve read a few other reviews which were all very positive and at this point I just wanna see the thing. I’ll read it after I see the film lol.

  • 17 5-13-2011 at 10:15 am

    Speaking English said...

    Ah, “Dedicated to the One I Love,” that’s right.

  • 18 5-14-2011 at 10:48 pm

    Patryk said...

    A work of art, no doubt.

    The film and the review.