Dec 15, 2011
We Need To Talk About Kevin
Mothers are supposed to be endless repositories of unconditional love and patience, but what if they have a hellish child? The premise of a failed relationship between a mother and her newborn baby is very interesting and never before seen, that I know of, in film. Can you think of any other movie about a resentful mother with a very bad kid? What can a mother do when confronted with having to love a succubus who hates her back? According to writer-director Lynne Ramsay, nothing, which is the main reason why this movie is a mess.
Be it far from me to cast aspersions on the great Tilda Swinton, who is as good as she can be in such a wrongheaded movie. It is not her fault that she is miscast as Eva, the mom of the Kevin in question. Swinton has such intelligent charisma and such a powerful personality that it is hard to believe she would be such a passive masochist, particularly in the hands of a rotten toddler. She's not easy to believe as a suburban American mom either. In this film she is an incomprehensible doormat, and doormats, even when played by La Swinton, are a lost cause to the audience.
With a more linear structure, this could have been a disturbing horror movie about a demonic child. Had it been a cheesy horror movie, or something in the vein of Stephen King, it would have been more interesting. Artsy-fartsy as it is, it just doesn't make much sense. In the first part, we see Eva living like a ghost, having flashbacks of a better life and of horrifying events caused by Kevin (Ezra Miller). Ramsay jerks the audience around for a good while until she finally decides to clarify what happened. Even though the movie exerts a visceral pull, especially in its second half, Ramsay's treatment of the topic is so pretentious and elliptical, that little works.
The story takes place somewhere in upstate New York, in what looks like a European's cliched idea of the American suburbs, complete with a supermarket scene with fake cans of tomato soup. In the aftermath of some truly hellish misbehavior by teenage Kevin, Eva, ostracized by the community, finds work at a crummy little travel agency too pathetic to feasibly exist. Although we see that in her former life she enjoyed a big house and fancy clothes, we never understand exactly what it is that her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) and her do to lead such an economically robust life, especially since they seem to be eternal hippies.
Missing in this movie about a mother is what is most important to parenting, which is common sense. Scene after scene of a satanic toddler, who then becomes a little boy, who then becomes Ezra Miller, being utterly evil, and there is not one timeout, not one screaming match, not one comeback from a frustrated parent. It never occurs to anyone to send this seriously deviant kid to a child psychologist. The sole time Eva loses it, the boy ends with a broken arm, but even then it looks like he deliberately hurt himself to torture her. Franklin is too naive and unbelieving about Eva's complaints about the kid. The kid, of course, is cherubic when dad is around, yet even when he witnesses some horrendous lip on him, Franklin just shrugs it off as boys will be boys. The casting of Reilly, who is excellent at playing easy-going men-boys, is rather hamhanded. On the other hand, you cannot cast Ezra Miller and be deliberately oblivious to his astonishing otherworldly beauty, which could either be a source of his always getting away with murder, or is not believable at all (aren't all those crazy kids with murderous fantasies usually gangly nerds?) The movie ignores this as it does most of reality. Hence we wait for two hours for Eva to put the kid in his place, but she never fights back. She doesn't even fight back when as a teen, Kevin really harms his sister. This was the last straw for me.
Ramsay doesn't want to spoil her arty movie with the coarse banalities of daily parental drama, so the way characters react in this movie has absolutely nothing to do with reality. There is no outside world to speak of. No teachers, no PTA meetings, no counseling experts. Eva is alone in her belief that this child is out to get her. Again, if this movie was in the hands of someone with creepiness in their mind, this could be bone-chilling. Is Eva imagining the child's malevolence? But Ramsay is more interested in showing the aftermath of destruction in Eva's psyche. She is his mother, but it's hard to understand why she sticks by him. She doesn't even like him. Ramsay punctuates Eva's depression with a very annoying country and pop music soundtrack that further removes the story from real life. Style gets in the way. Still, as flawed as it is, this film manages to create significant disquiet. In a culture that always finds justifications for the worst human behaviors, usually along the lines of an abusive childhood in the past, this movie turns this explanation on its head. It's the kid who abuses the loving parents, without apparent reason. Kevin is just evil to the core. What would you do with a kid like him?