It is an odd coincidence to note that Scottish director Lynne Ramsay‘s We Need To Talk About Kevin screened immediately before Gus Van Sant’s Restless today, since the subject matter positions this irresistibly dangerous film an almost sequel to Van Sant’s equally controversial Elephant, which itself walked away with the Palme d’Or in 2003. But this is a far different affair entirely, because, at its heart We Need To Talk About Kevin is both a situational horror and a domestic/maternal horror story.
Tilda Swinton, who must surely be a contender for many, many Best Actress gongs in the coming year, plays Eva, a mother whose son has committed the atrocious crime of attacking and killing a number of his schoolmates in a Columbine style shooting. We don’t actually learn about this until the end of the film, but since the marketing material references it heavily, and since there is a far more affecting twist in this tale, it’s fine to say it here.
Ramsay successfully employs an alinear structure, jumping back and forth in time to reveal jigsaw pieces that flesh out characters and events in a perfectly captivating manner, and ultimately converge with astonishingly affecting results – but really the film is quite restrained in its focus. The film’s focus is far more on the relationship between Eva and Kevin as the boy grows up, and the difficult position Eva is left in after he is imprisoned, rather than on the actual flashpoint that the story blossoms out from. In that respect, the story becomes more that maternal horror, a fact that is explicated even further by revelations of Eva’s post-natal depression, and a, let’s say, tumultuous relationship with her son up until the age of fifteen. All told is an incredibly alluring portrait of strangled motherhood, and parental guilt.
We Need To Talk About Kevin is one of the best examples of a film marrying provocative subject matter with an exquisitely refined and ultimately very simple aesthetic approach to astounding effect. It isn’t just that Ramsay and her production team have paid due attention to the delicate needs of the story, it is in the stylistic approach to building atmosphere and crucially enticing audience reaction that they must gain the most plaudits. Specifically, the film employs amplified sounds and magnified images in certain scenes (usually involving food or the body), fetishizing the scenes in a successful attempt to draw a parallel between everyday habits like eating, or cleaning paint from your hands, with the implied events inside the school in order to jar a visceral response from the audience.
Last year, Biutiful screened here, and featured one of the best single performances from an actor I think I have ever seen. Despite being in a film that was largely quite boring, and definitely a challenge to watch, Javier Bardem shone in the lead in such a manner that he made the Best Actor list come Oscar time. The reason I mention this is because I drew a lot of comparisons in Bardem and Swinton’s performances: both seem effortlessly engaging, and in both cases the actors seem to have gone through physical transformations to capture the trauma of their personal conditions. In WNTTAK, the post-event Swinton is drawn and haggered, lacking the grace, elegance and poise that has come to be a defining characteristic of her performances to date, and her entire demeanor plays like a painfully visible scar, as her life has been eviscerated by her son’s actions, and her own feelings of responsibility.
Alongside her, and playing the pick of the characters, three young actors turn in positively Damien-esque performances as her son Kevin (Rock Duer, Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller) that might have made mince-meat of any other lead, but which all feed Swinton’s performance incredibly well. Miller in particular is demonic as the teenage Kevin, and the way he switches between malice and kindness when interacting with his parents is a wonder to behold, and it is on that performance that the final harrowing revelation of the film succeeds so well. The most genius addition to his character is an exotic otherness and detachment, that compels us to question why he did what he did. Could it really be that Eva’s parenting lead to his atrocity? We search for meaning just as the film so brilliantly does, trawling through the alinear images to put the pieces together.
Aside from Swinton and the triumvirate of Kevin actors, the acting is almost uniformly excellent, without dragging too much focus away: John C. Reilly does well to make any impact in a story that unfortunately, but very necessarily casts him aside as a naive pseudo-villain (by proximity, and not action), very young actress Ashley Gerasimovich offers just enough sweetness without much substance, and Siobhan Fallon and Alex Manette take to their polar opposite roles as Eva’s latter day workmates with subtle, but telling flair.
So will Lynne Ramsay’s claustrophobic creeper do as its spiritual predecessor, and take the highest accolade when Robert DeNiro sits down with his Jury on Sunday week? Well, I have already said that I thought, pre-viewing, that Ramsay’s film would be a strong contender, and having now had the benefit of seeing it, I can’t help but pat myself on the back for the prediction. I think there is a good chance we might get to see the BBC Film win, though it will not be only down to its controversial subject matter (which is surely a politicized draw for jurors), because what Ramsay has put together is a thing of beauty that leaves as lasting an imprint as the real-life school shootings that inspired it. Sadly though, things in Cannes are never quite so simple, and what is well-received in the audience isn’t necessarily so heralded among the Grand Jury members: but I do think that there is enough Cannes-friendly material here to make WNTTAK a genuine contender. And a popular one at that.
The Upside: An incredibly tense affair, beautifully and evocatively stylized filmmaking from Ramsay, featuring stand-out performances from both Tilda Swinton (who must win something for this) and Ezra Miller.
The Downside: It’s occasionally difficult to watch, thanks to its fetishistic aesthetic, but then, that’s entirely the point of provocative cinema: it dares you to look away, all the while teasing your gaze to remain.