Friday, March 9, 2012

The Enigma of Kevin: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

Yesterday afternoon I took in a screening of Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, a devastating, artistically shot, beautifully performed film about a woman who must suffer the eternal anguish of being the mother of a teenage son who has committed multiple murders in a high school killing spree.

It was playing in the screening room in the basement of the Cape Cod Museum of Art in Dennis where I suffered very curious viewing circumstances. The small theater, that seats out a hundred, is simply big screen projection of a DVD. (The Cape Cinema was closed for renovations.) It was Thursday afternoon, I had no afternoon classes, so I was able to catch a 2:00 o’clock showing with an audience of retirees whose viewing manners left much to be desired: rustling of homemade popcorn in paper bags; talking during the opening scenes; and the woman next to me actually sang along with one of the rock songs used in the film. On top of that, the owner of the Cape Cinema had trouble with the projector, and it took a good five minutes to get the thing going.

Never again to the screening room for me! But I appreciated what I saw, and I offer a few observations in the way of encouraging other moviegoers to see the film and comment here.

Tilda Swinton plays Eva Khatchadourian, a passionate traveler and writer who becomes an erstwhile mother of a difficult child. Kevin constantly cries as an infant and is late to speak and become potty-trained. As a teenager, Kevin is clearly a sociopath: withdrawn, hostile, without remorse, capable of cruelties that escalate in severity. He is a scary child without a conscience, played memorably by Ezra Miller. Strangely, neither Eva nor her complacent, oblivious husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly), ever suggests that Kevin needs to see a psychologist, even after Kevin grinds up his little sister’s guinea pig in the garbage disposal.

Besides being wonderfully performed, the film is visually provocative. In one of the opening images, a massive scrum of bodies surges back and forth in a red mess of tomatoes churned up during the tomato festival in Bunyol, Spain. Eva, the free-spirited traveler, revels in a sea of red. But this chaos of redness is suggestive of much more serious issues, and the film keeps reminding us of redness throughout.

Meanwhile, the screenplay favors brief vignettes that flash back from the now of the story that takes place two years after the shootings. We get glimpses of Kevin at different ages, we get very brief glimpses of the killings, but we are always brought back to the wan, colorless face of Eva, trying to exist in hell on earth. In one image her face looks like it is decaying as it dissolves to a wall papered with Eva’s precious maps that Kevin has splattered with ink.

Ezra Miller presents a very unsettling character, and the film presents him as a mystery. At the end of the film, Eva wants to know why her son did what he did. Similarly, throughout the film, we wonder about Kevin’s problems, his strangeness, and why he does what he does. How does a sociopath become a sociopath? What’s missing? Can anything make a difference? Part of Eva’s living hell is her guilt. She punishes herself by scrubbing red paint off the front of her vandalized house, and by eating an omelet full of eggshells because the eggs she bought at the supermarket have been broken by the bitter mother of one of Kevin’s victims. When Jehovah’s Witnesses come calling at Eva’s door, she proclaims that she has no hope of avoiding damnation. She knows she is going to hell, eternal fire, the whole bit. But does Eva deserve hell?

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a disturbing film that keeps you thinking about its issues and piecing together its striking and suggestive imagery. It is a film that is often difficult to watch, but it is a highly worthwhile viewing for many reasons. Foremost, Swinton’s performance is outstanding, and I have no idea why she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar.

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