Friday, December 23, 2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011, Lynne Ramsay)

Of all the complaints I’ve read about We Need to Talk About Kevin, Ramsay’s first film in nearly a decade, the most interesting to me is the idea that the film doesn’t work because Kevin (played by Ezra Miller as a teenager) is a monster more or less from the time the doctor cut his umbilical cord. And you know what? Those folks aren’t wrong- a film in which a mother looks back at the fleeting, subtle signs that her kid is going to end up shooting up his school does (on paper, anyway) sound more compelling than one in which a child reveals his evil from the get-go and seems inevitably careening toward cataclysmic violence.

Yet I don’t think that Ramsay wants to examine the genesis of a killer, so much as she wants to explore how inadequate the vast majority of us are when confronted with unfiltered evil. As I’ve come to understand in the last three-odd years, dealing with a child can be rough going even under the best of circumstances, since parenting challenges tend to arise all too often when you’ve got plenty of other things on your plate. What makes it even harder for Eva (Tilda Swinton) is that Kevin isn’t your garden variety tiny terror who has fits and rages- he’s clever and calculating even from a young age, and all of his dealings with his mother seem driven by a desire to antagonize her, even while he puts on a friendly face for his father and the rest of the world.

Making matters worse is the fact that Eva is hardly an ideal candidate for motherhood. Swinton is pretty amazing here, conveying the frustrations of a woman whose parenting skills are limited, and whose attempts to raise her son are constantly (and frustratingly) thwarted by his unwillingness to cooperate. After all, how would you feel if you had a child who not only continued to wear a diaper well into his grade-school years, but also deliberately had an “accident” right in front of you, out of pure spite? Making it even worse is that when Eva reacts to him in a way that accidentally leads to her breaking Kevin’s arm, he now has something specific with which to manipulate his mother, thereby making her feel even more inadequate.

Which brings me back to my original idea of how ill-equipped people are to handle unstoppably evil people, no matter what their age. Sure, truckloads of books have been written on children who are mentally ill or otherwise troubled, but Kevin is clearly an outlier, and there’s no way to prepare someone to deal with his actions, much less his deeper nature. In essence, Kevin functions like a funhouse mirror to Eva, reflecting her own parenting issues and anxieties back at her, only exaggerated to an abject degree.

It’s because Eva was so powerless to do anything to stop her son that the scenes in the aftermath of the shooting are so effective. The incident has made her a social pariah, as she has her property vandalized, finds herself shunned in public, and is even assaulted by a member of the community. In a more conventional take on this subject matter, Eva would look back at her son’s life and try to figure out what she did wrong, but such was Kevin’s nature that practically everything she could have done would have ended in failure. The fact that she takes the punishment underlines not only the guilt she feels about her son’s actions, but also her resignation. After all, if you had a child like Kevin, what, realistically, could you have done to stop him?

This idea that we don’t have the amount of control over the child’s fate as we’d like to think we do is a pretty despairing view of parenting, and while Kevin is obviously an extreme case, there’s an element of this idea in every parent-child relationship. What parent hasn’t at some point had to face the fact that he or she is ill-equipped to deal with his child’s unique challenges? I’m reminded of an incident I witnessed a few years back in an airport, in which a preteen boy yelled at and insulted his parents at great length. At the time I had trouble with the fact that his parents didn’t do anything to take him aside and remove him from the crowded waiting area, but what has stuck with me most since then was the defeated looks on their faces as they tried impotently to deal with him. Granted, this child was clearly mentally ill rather than flat-out monstrous, but their reaction (or lack thereof) felt to me a lot like Eva’s feelings about her son.

If We Need to Talk About Kevin is full of troubling ideas, it’s also an highly skilled piece of filmmaking. The first half-hour of the film is particularly impressive, with Ramsay forgoing old-school exposition and instead sets up the film expressionistically, bouncing back and forth in Eva’s life in a way that establishes the film’s recurring stylistic motifs. And even after the film settles down into its story, Ramsay never goes overboard with plot, allowing the images and action to drive the action. For instance, consider how she portrays the shooting- not in exhaustive detail, but simply by showing Kevin putting locks on the doors, followed by a series of shots that may or may not be Eva’s image of how it might have happened. Even critics who don’t fully support Kevin agree that Ramsay is a major talent, and that it would be a shame if she took another decade to finish her next film.

Rating: 8 out of 10.