Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011), her first feature in nine years and an adaptation of the novel by Lionel Shriver is, to put it simply, spectacularly messed up.
The story follows the life of one Eva Katchadourian (Tilda Swinton) as she gives birth to her son Kevin (played at various ages by Rocky Duer, Jasper Newell, and Ezra Miller as the child, youth, and teenaged Kevin respectively), struggles to raise him to doubtful young adulthood and, much later, live a life made lonely by ostracization from the entire community--though not necessarily in that order. Ramsey shuffles the time order, her way of echoing the novel's structure (a series of letters written by Eva to her husband that look back on her life), leaving clues along the way of something terrible that happens--will happen--later in the film, possibly the reason for her isolated status.
Ramsay's not an untalented filmmaker; she directs the film with a creepy deadpan tone, something of a cross between the hilariously serious (I'm thinking of Richard Donner's deadly earnest The Omen (1976)) and the seriously hilarious (Barry Sonnenfeld's Addams Family Values (1993), with a waywardly witty script by Paul Rudnick). Ramsay surrounds mother and son with a supporting cast full of grotesques (Alex Manette as a creepily predatory office co-worker, John C. Reilly as the eternally sweaty-looking husband), some (with the help of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey) striking imagery predominantly highlighted by a vivid shade of red (Swinton posed against a Warholian background of soup cans), and a soundtrack sprinkled with choices obvious (Buddy Holly's “Everyday”), and not-so-obvious (George Michael's “Last Christmas,” a selection from the score of Chen Kaige's Farewell My Concubine).
There's an argument to be made that Swinton is miscast here, being reportedly a less-than-empathic actress of the Isabelle Huppert school of onscreen disdain. I don't see it (actually I don't see it in Huppert who, when used judiciously, can be devastatingly effective); here Swinton's the put-upon sad-sack mother, her most consistently funny expression being the caught-in-the-headlights look on her face as she realizes time and again just what she's dealing with. As for her beloved son Ramsey manages to inspire every one of the Kevins, from toddler to teen, to flash the trademark Kubrickian evil psycho grin (see Jack Nicholson in The Shining (1980), or Vincent D'Onofrio in Full Metal Jacket (1987)), to which Swinton's Eva can only respond with exhausted dismay. Yes, Swinton's default mode is cold fish, but I actually found this more fascinating--a woman unapologetically accustomed to flying all over the world and writing about her travels suddenly confined to a single house in a tiny town with the Devil's spawn. She doesn't give in to her neighbors, she doesn't give in to us her audience; when she does give in, almost despite herself, it's a startling moment, and startlingly moving...
Perhaps my biggest problem with the film is the lack of psychological insight; we're outside looking in, and Ramsey doesn't even seem all that interested in doing more than suggest what drives both mother and son (and, equally interesting, what makes mother just as culpable as son). The film is really a series of darkly comic gags, artfully shuffled together and strikingly photographed--not unentertaining, but not something you would take seriously on the issue.
Perhaps it helps to look at another film for comparison. Lino Brocka is not the most sophisticated filmmaker in the world; his pictures work best as blood melodramas, with a sense of you-are-there immediacy. He's a straightforward, no-nonsense artist whose subtlest ability is a gift for modulating actors, coaxing them to underplay so that the melodrama starts looking larger and more profound--touching at times the level of dramatic art...
His Insiang (1976) covers roughly the same territory, albeit in a more straightforward manner: girl raised by less-than-loving mother, learns through abuse and neglect to give back as good as she gets, or better. Perhaps the difference here is that you identify with different points of view--mother, being abandoned by her husband; daughter being abandoned (emotionally if not literally) by her mother. Brocka makes both sides real for you, you can't help but sympathize with both points of view...and are horrified when both clash dramatically, then violently.
Brocka doesn't use a fancy back-and-forth time scheme, doesn't use a beautifully modulated color palette. His camerawork (by the great Conrado Baltazar) makes strict use of sunlight and available incandescents (or appears to do so, at least, better even than slum dramas are able to do today); his script (by longtime collaborator and filmmaker Mario O'Hara) is ripped out of the here-and-now (O'Hara claims the story happened to his backyard neighbors in the district of Pasay). We Need to Talk About Kevin isn't a bad film, really--it's brilliantly shot and acted and morbidly entertaining--but it doesn't have the white-hot intensity of unvarnished truth, or of a Brocka film.
First published in Businessworld, 6/21/12