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We Need to Talk About Kevin

April 11, 2013

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Actors: Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly

kevin-tomato-soup-300x187.jpg (300×187)

Synopsis: Eva (Tilda Swinton) is a beleaguered, middle-aged woman, persecuted by the residents of her small town for the crimes committed by her son Kevin two years previously. Eva reflects back on Kevin’s life from conception through to the present-day.

Review: The term ‘failure’ is one I’ve always been uncomfortable about when it’s sprinkled blithely and liberally by film commentators. We Need to Talk About Kevin however is one of the few films where the expression is inescapable, as the best way I can find to describe Lynne Ramsay’s work is as a very “interesting failure”. By this, I mean that the film is beautiful to look at (in common with Ramsay’s work elsewhere), and the sheer engrossing lure of the material is undeniable, but the treatment of the story’s primal mother-son relationship is too simplistic, and Ramsay’s directorial focus on aesthetics somewhat lessens the import of the subject matter.

As mentioned, Ramsay thinks through her stories in a very pictorial and expressionistic way, and while that always makes her films very arresting and sensory (her Morvern Callar is one of British cinema’s greatest achievements of the last decade or so), her symbolic motif of playing up the colour red – a portent of Kevin’s malevolent intent – seems rather obvious and dramatically inert. Ramsay’s fusing of pop songs to the dark subject matter is also rather ineffective. The Mamas and the Papas’ “Dedicated to the One I Love” at the end of Morvern Callar works beautifully, but music used as ironic counterpart to the malign Kevin’s actions is unoriginal. The conceit was used a lot more playfully some 11 years before in Mary Harron’s American Psycho.

And although I haven’t read the book on which this film is based, I would imagine the central question of We Need to Talk About Kevin is whether Eva can assign any personal culpability for Kevin’s atrocities through the challenges she had in rearing him. We do get one or two scenes that slightly telegraph this storytelling intent – Eva getting infuriated by the continual screams of the baby Kevin, and the vague referencing to her travelling past – but the film imagines Kevin as such a fundamentally unpleasant and psychopathic personality throughout his life (almost using horror effects to create this dynamic), that it’s difficult to take too seriously any thesis that Eva’s mothering skills, though far from perfect, were even partly to account for Kevin’s malevolent pathology. (April 2013)

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