Thursday, March 29, 2012

A powerful look inside a mother's torment

We Need to Talk About Kevin isn't for everyone, but this look at a reluctant mother is provocative and haunting.

Director Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk About Kevin had a run on last fall’s film festival circuit, opened commercially in New York and Los Angeles in December of 2011, but only now is beginning to circulate around the country. In conjunction with November's Starz Denver Film Festival, Ramsey and screenwriter Rory Kinnear visited Denver to talk about a movie that involves a killing rampage at a high school. Gifted and unapologetic about her choices, Ramsey made it clear that she understood that some people might reject her movie on its face.

It’s important to take note of the words “on its face” because We Need to Talk About Kevin is not really about a young man who kills fellow students at his high school, although that horrific event does reverberate throughout the story, giving it an extremely disturbing edge.

Unsettling, yes, but I can't agree with a woman who at a festival screening of the movie said We Need to Talk About Kevin never should have been made. There are very few "shoulds" when it comes to art. Many artists like to explore the extremes of human behavior because they know that such extremes often push toward difficult truths. If nothing else, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a movie of extremes.

Based on a novel by Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin has no interest in explaining school murders, which may be unexplainable anyway. What distinguishes both the novel and Ramsey’s movie is a willingness to take a highly subjective look at the main character Eva (Tilda Swinton in the film), a mother who can’t accept her son. Eva probably never wanted to be a wife and mother, and she's forced to re-evaluate her life after her son (Ezra Miller) commits a horrible crime.

Courageously, Ramsey has done what few filmmakers who adapt novels for the screen are willing to do: She has taken only what most intrigued her about Shriver’s dense fiction and discarded the rest. This approach probably was essential because Shriver told the story through a series of letters written by Eva. What remains is a riveting account in which past and present mingle as the movie works its way toward the climax we know is coming.

Ramsey and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey create powerful imagery -- and if you pay attention -- you’ll soon become aware that you are not receiving a rounded, clear-eyed portrait of a troubled family: You’re getting the view from inside of Eva’s head -- and it’s not a pleasant one.

Swinton makes a perfect Eva, a woman who has stepped into a life in which she feels like a stranger. Eva gave up a career as a travel agent to become a wife and mother, but We Need to Talk About Kevin is not a feminist tract that decries Eva’s loss of independence; it’s a mesmerizing, intimate examination Eva’s life as a mother who deals with a child who (for reasons that movie never fully explains) is a handful from day one.

Roll a ball to little Kevin, and he refuses to return it. He just sits there. Long after most kids are toilet trained, Kevin continues to poop in his pants, an act of willful disobedience.

On some level, Kevin knows that he is not a wanted child. He perceives his mother’s rejection and misses no opportunity to punish her for it. Like many a misguided child, Kevin's also smart enough to see through the facade of suburban life that’s supposed to shield people from their demons.

Only Kevin and his mother share this twisted intimacy. Kevin’s dad Franklin (John C. Reilly) takes a boys-will-be-boys attitude toward Kevin, insisting (even when the evidence is overwhelming) that things are OK. Eva and Franklin’s second child (Ursula Parker) somehow seems to have escaped from the family’s loop of rage, denial, frustration and lack of fulfillment: It’s as if she’s been dropped into this nightmare from a more much more pleasant dream.

Swinton’s masterful performance turns Eva into a witness as much as a participant in her life. Eva’s encountering an awful truth, so it’s not surprising that Swinton often looks stunned and shattered. Try as she may, Eva can’t change what seems to be an indestructible part of her nature, a resistance to being Kevin’s mother.

Ramsey’s casting is spot-on: Reilly’s perfect as a deluded dad. The actors who play Kevin as a boy (Rock Duer and Jasper Newell) are equally good, as is Miller, who takes over when Kevin becomes an adolescent.

Ramsey, whose last movie was the equally difficult Morvern Collar (2002), is alert to the satirical possibilities in even the darkest material. She doesn't approach her characters with soggy sympathy but with a cool - even cruel -- eye.

Ramsey made We Need To Talk About Kevin for very little money. She and her crew had to work fast. I think the haste served the material, which also boasts provocatively fragmented storytelling, remarkable sound design and a haunting score by Jonny Greenwood.

In a community that lives with the memory of Columbine, some may wish to avoid the provocations and occasional horror of We Need To Talk About Kevin. I wouldn’t try to argue anyone out of such a position.

But those who see We Need to Talk About Kevin will find a fevered nightmare with humor nipping at its edges. For me, We Need To Talk About Kevin stands as a small masterpiece of subjective cinema; its febrile tremors infiltrate, challenge and ultimately haunt the mind. And know this: We Need to Talk About Kevin is not an exercise in social realism; it's an exercise in emotional realism: rampant, dark and unafraid.

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