Monday, December 12, 2011

Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) features a career-peak Tilda Swinton turn in a devastatingly sad, and highly interpretive horror drama.

We Need to Talk About Kevin
112 minutes
rated R

by Scott Mendelson

It would be argued that Lynne Ramsay's bracing We Need to Talk About Kevin is among the least literal pictures since Inception.  By that I mean it can be (correctly?) interpreted any number of ways, or it can be appreciated at face value for the tale it appears to be telling.  Whether it's a straight-ahead horror story, a striking parable, or a fantastical 'what-if?' that operates as the opposite of a wish-fulfillment fantasy, the film is a powerful piece of work and features a stunningly good lead performance by Tilda Swinton.  At heart, it's about the horror of not being able to bond with your child, and thus not really loving him/her, as well as the inexplicable pressure on parents (arguably more-so on mothers) to never have a cross thought about their respective offspring.  If you're one of four people reading this who don't know how the story eventually goes, I'll do my best not to reveal it here.  But the ultimate destination plays out less as surprise and more as a resignment.  This is not a film about 'dealing with the unthinkable', but rather about a mother who sees the writing on the wall but is powerless to stop it.

A token amount of plot - Kevin (played as a teen by Ezra Miller) has been a difficult child almost from birth.  While he seems to get along okay with his father Frank (John C. Reilly), he has always been stand-offish and disagreeable with his mother Eva (Tilda Swinton). As an infant and toddler, he refuses to bond, cries without end and neither gives nor appreciates any sort of affection.  Eventually another child is born, and young Ceila (Ashley Gerasimovich) is the kind of happy, affectionate child that Eva always wanted.  But even that happiness is threatened as Kevin becomes more withdrawn from his mother and the parents become ever more at-war about whether Kevin is simply different or a genuine problem child.

Most of the film is a portrait of Eva, as she deals (in flashback) with raising a child who does not love her and in the present with the aftermath of an unknown incident that obviously caused everyone great distress.  In the present, Eva is isolated, seemingly alone and unable to really put her life back together.  In the past, she is the prototypical portrait of a mother at her wits-end.  With the exception of one incident that involves genuine violence, most of Eva's coping mechanisms (such stopping young Kevin's stroller near a construction sight so the loud machines can temporarily drown out Kevin's crying) would only be condemned by those who could never relate.  And in turn, while we spend enough time in Eva's shoes to sympathize when her pleas fall on Frank's deaf ears, most of Kevin's behavior doesn't necessarily cross the line into truly disturbing actions, at least until a third-act 'accident' that occurs after it's probably almost too late for a positive outcome.

So then, without going into too many details, is the film meant as a literal story that objectively tells a specific narrative?  Or, is it a portrait of a mother who is helpless to keep her family intact and who is helpless in terms of reaching a child that shows her no love and no affection, where the family dissolution is somewhat more sensationalistic than what happens to most families?  Without certain details, the film could just as compellingly play as a portrait of parents dealing with any number of the types of afflicted kids who don't give back much love (kids with severe Autism, for example?).  When the inevitable occurs, is there not a part of Eva who, while clearly devastated, is not almost vindicated as a result?  It wasn't her inability to bond or her lack of skill as a mother, but rather her bad luck at getting a son who wasn't quite all of the other kids.

I have a third theory, one that may or may not hold water.  I took the film in all of its intense and tragic glory as a variation on a most extreme form of self-martyrdom.  In that, I mean it's a sober, dramatic variation on that moment in A Christmas Story where Ralphie imagines that he has been poisoned and blinded by the soap that his parents washed his mouth out with after he used the 'F-word' in their presence.  When bad things happen, some people fantasize about getting even and/or living well and 'showing them all!'.  But other people internalize the initial offense, and fantasize instead about the worst case scenario occurring to them that would fuel their righteous indignation.  Could much of what transpires in the third act merely be Eva's fantasy, a worst-case scenario that allows her to be vindicated in her own eyes even while subjecting herself to further misery and pain?  I can't say, but it's just one way you can read this fascinating picture.

No matter how you read it, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a striking picture of uncommon intensity and power.  It contains via Tilda Swinton one of the year's finest performances, if merely taken at face value, is an unflinchingly sad account of one mother's unending, if eventually futile attempt to salvage her relationship with a child that inexplicably does not love her and in turn save her family in the process.  No matter how you interpret the picture, it is one of the most powerful dramas of the year, and it truly deserves to be seen and, yes, talked about.

grade: A-                        

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