Tuesday, 8 November 2011

We Need To Talk About Kevin

Straight N’ Arrow

We Need To Talk About Kevin 2011 UK/USA
Directed by Lynne Ramsay
Screening at UK cinemas.

Warning: There are kind of spoilers here I guess...
although it’s pretty much all worn on it’s sleeve
from the start of the movie.

I didn’t really know much about the latest Lynne Ramsay movie, other than it had an unpleasing (to my ear) and unwieldy title and, consequently, I didn’t really know what to expect from it. My expectations hadn’t changed any after having seen the trailer either. Somebody had said, after also having seen the same trailer, that they assumed it was about some kind of devil-child like in The Omen movies. I couldn’t myself disagree with them entirely because, in many ways, the trailer was was cut like a horror movie, to some extent.

As you've probably guessed by now... I’ve not read the novel on which We Need To Talk About Kevin is based and any reference to the rather grim actions of the title character in the trailer were oblique at best. What I did know, however, is that it was directed by Lynne Ramsay, it’s her third feature length film and that I’d seen her last film, Morvern Callar, and thought it one of the most extraordinary films of that year. So, on the strength of Morvern Callar and the fact that one of the more artistically reliable actresses of contemporary cinema, Tilda Swinton, had a major role in it... I thought it best not to miss this one and I braved London as the times of the single daily screening at my local cineplex were preposterous, and watched it at a time better suited to the needs of the average cinema going public.

I was pretty sure, on the strength of her last feature, that We Need To Talk About Kevin would highlight a solid artist of the cinema directing a work which would demonstrate impeccable taste, great cinematography and a cast capable of giving some of the best performances in current cinema... and I was right. We Need To Talk About Kevin does all that and more. But for me, there were a few little negatives in their which kind of balanced out the movie so it became a little less than jaw dropping on this occasion.

The story, if the movie can be said to have one (as much as this director could be said to deal with such a locked in sequence of events that could make up such a thing as “a story”), is about Kevin’s mum Eva (played by Tilda Swinton) as she looks back over periods of her life of trying to raise an extremely difficult, hostile child, in the aftermath of a high school slaughter in which Kevin has taken a bow and quiver full of arrows and maimed and killed, not only all his classmates but also his father (played by the always fantastic John C. Reilly) and his little sister.

Eva, aggressively ostracised and terrorised by her local community in the wake of her son’s murder spree, now inhabits a world of red where the red paint from her vandalised house and car (which she is forever scrubbing away) is a constant visual metaphor for the blood on her son’s hands. The film is cut in a slightly less than linear way as visual or aural signals trigger her memory and jolt us back to different parts of her life. This kind of technique to give the viewer a slow sense of everything developing at once, like an old self developing polaroid picture will slowly fade into being all at once rather than bit by bit, coupled with the use in this film of large amounts of red, made me think of the closeness of style between Lynne Ramsey in this movie and another of my old directing heroes, Nicholas Roeg. Although Roeg’s sudden flash-back or indeed flash-forward cuts will often be a lot more dramatic in speed and intensity throughout the majority of his movies, the technique is very similar with Ramsay being, perhaps, a more laid back version of Roeg. Laid back in terms of the speed of the contrast, if you will, but not necessarily laid back in terms of dramatic gravitas, it has to be said.

One thing Ramsay seemed to be doing, and I didn’t notice this until a good two thirds of the way through the film but I suspect it holds true for the majority of the running time, is to pitch static shots against hand-held camera shots when the camera does need to move. For example, think of the cinema of Ozu where a scene is comprised of shots from locked down cameras with no motion from the apparatus involved at all... although in this movie there are certainly some of those static shots which have a lot of movement going on within the frame of the shot and which, on one memorable occasion, may trick your eye into thinking the camera is moving. This shot after shot after shot gatling gun technique creates a little jolt on the subconscious when immediately followed by a jerky, hand held shot as a character is being followed around by the cameraman and this kind of dynamism created by the juxtaposition of image types obviously gives the film a lively pacing to it which kind of seeps into you without really calling attention to itself. This is, of course, more evidence to support Ramsay’s genius as an artist of the moving image.

For me, though, there were a few things about the movie that made the final version much less than the sum of its parts, even though the thing taken as a whole was surely not a visual treat that was, in any way, uneasy to digest.

First of all, the film is being promoted with a quote implying that this is Tilda Swinton’s finest performance. Well it may be or it may not be but I don't think one could categorically say that this performance is in any way better than several of her others. And this is not to derogatise or diminish Swinton’s presence in this movie... I’ve certainly made it no secret in the past that I consider Tilda to be one of the most interesting on-screen personalities in many years and the quality of her work in this particular movie is as astonishing as some of her previous roles. It is, though, very much an ensemble piece with John C. Reilly giving good support and some absolutely amazing performances by the various actors playing Kevin at different stages of his life... you will have absolutely no sympathy for this character in any way, shape or form and his totally evil nature will grab ahold of you and not let you go.

My main problem with the movie, though, is that it never really gets grim enough for my liking. Here we are dealing with a terrible subject and a character who is all but going to pieces as she tries to cope with holding everything together... and yet we never really see that inner turmoil unleashed as something tangible on screen and nor do we see the actual events in question as they played out... only the reactions of those around the events. Now I’m not stupid (well, not completely), I realise that this muffled visual expression is designed to keep the tension just this side of the watched kettle never quite boiling and I know the actual events of the high school slaughter are designed to be more enhanced due to the audiences own imagination... and that kind of stuff usually works really well for me in that the implied narrative event will often be much more enhanced than the actual visual realisation of it. However, on this one I just needed more bleak and gloomy and ultimately the film didn’t quite measure up to my own expectations created by the set up of the films opening. But, frankly, that’s my own problem and not something a prospective viewer should worry about when going in to see this movie for the first time.

So... when we come down to it, what we really have is this. We Need To Talk About Kevin is not a film I could watch again like I could with Morvern Callar (which I’d be happy to watch at least once a year) but I’d still have to recommend it on the grounds that, despite the baggage I personally brought with me when I turned up at the cinema to watch this film... it’s still also everything I’d assumed it would be which was, to quote myself from above, a film made by “a solid artist of the cinema directing a work which would demonstrate impeccable taste, great cinematography and a cast capable of giving some of the best performances in current cinema”... so I was right all along, there’s absolutely no point in missing out on this one. Catch it before people start talking about things other than Kevin.


  1. I really want to see this one, primarily because I love Swinton and Reilly and I've heard great things about the book it's based on. I'm sorry it didn't quite work for you but I'm glad that your review has helped my own expectations!

  2. Hey there Alex.

    Well I'd certainly recommend it... you'll love the colours and Tilda is always worth a watch.

    Thanks very much for stopping by and reading. It's always much appreciated.