Tag Archives: natural born killers

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

5 Jan

Film directing remains a steadfastly male domain, retaining the taint of macho adventurism long since passed. In the past, talented female helmers like Ida Lupino and Elaine May were judged by a higher standard than their male counterparts; expected to be twice as good to be considered equal. But this gender imbalance is slowly being rectified by a new generation. Inspired by trailblazers like Mary Harron, Jane Campion and Jodie Foster, the likes of Kathryn Bigelow, Lisa Cholodenko, Debra Granik and Lynne Ramsay have made compelling award-winning work that hasn’t become trapped in a gender ghetto.

Glasgow native Ramsay made a string of stellar shorts before her debut feature, ‘Ratcatcher’ (1999), a searing portrait of life in her hometown during the turbulent early Seventies, garnered critical acclaim. Next was ‘Morvern Callar’ (2002), a vivid adaptation of Alan Warner’s novel which served to cement her reputation as one of Britain’s most exciting emerging talents behind the camera. Then things took a turn for the worse.

In 2001, Ramsay was slated to direct the adaptation of Alice Sebold’s best-seller ‘The Lovely Bones’, but walked away from the project in 2004 after ‘creative differences’ with the film’s producer – and eventual director – Peter Jackson. There were whispers that the passionate, plain-speaking Scot may have burned her bridges with Hollywood’s power elite, that she was destined to be yet another flash in the pan; a notion happily dispelled by this adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s million-selling, Orange Prize-winning novel.

Ramsay’s most ambitious offering yet, ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ exhibits Ramsay’s gift for taking a familiar, popular literary property and putting on it her own artistic imprint. The film centres on Eva Khatchadorain (Tilda Swinton) in the aftermath of a school massacre committed by her son, Kevin. Ostracised by the community, Eva struggles to rebuild her life; though in the eyes of those around her she is complicit in the crime, the anger and grief transferred onto her, as imprisoned by the act as her son. The narrative flits back and forth, recounting the endless battle of wills between Eva and Kevin; a war of attrition that intensifies as Eva comes to understand that her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly), doesn’t share her sense of foreboding about their offspring.

After eight years in the wilderness, ‘We Need to Talk…’ reaffirms Ramsay’s standing as a singular cinematic voice. Ramsay handles the emotionally dense source material with poise and self-assurance; placing herself at the service of the story, her compositions designed to articulate the fraught nature of the characters’ relationships, never succumbing to vulgar displays of technique. The sound design ably conveys Eva’s inner tumult, isolating lawnmowers, clocks et al. to create a cacophony of the everyday that mirrors Eva’s fuzzy mental state. The livid red and orange that figures throughout the production design, combined with recontextualized saccharine pop songs and Jonny Greenwood’s original score, create a palpable unease that can best be described as ‘Lynchian’.

Swinton has matured from Derek Jarman’s primary muse into one of the elite character actors; as her worth is not predicated on her physical allure, Swinton has been afforded the opportunity to evolve beyond the onerous constraints of conspicuous glamour. Her performance in ‘We Need to Talk…’ is so astounding because so little of its strength is verbal; there are no showy soliloquies, but the role is a gruelling physical challenge to which she rises with aplomb. So much of the drama rests on gesture, inflection, brief flickers of what lies behind the eyes, multiple layers of frustration, exasperation, resentment and desperation, and the rest of the cast proves equal to the challenge.

Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller both succeed in tracing Kevin’s growth from burgeoning sociopath to fully-fledged psychopath; Miller is chilling in his evocation of perspicacious teenage nihilism, while Newell portrays the vindictive relish of the solipsistic child with a conviction that is amazing for one so young. Reilly occupies a tertiary role, a position traditionally taken by female characters; separate from the unfolding drama, there to provide moral support and play devil’s advocate, a thankless but crucial contribution to the overall effort.

‘We Need to Talk…’ has more to say about the relationship between violence, environment, adolescence and the mass media than Oliver Stone/Quentin Tarantino’s grandstanding take on the subject in ‘Natural Born Killers’ (1994), any of Michael Haneke’s numerous discourses – ‘Benny’s Video’ (1992), ‘Funny Games’ (1997) et al. – or Gus Van Sant’s voguish examination of the issue in ‘Elephant’ (2003). The film weighs in on the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate with commendable subtlety, and explores the role of our increasingly passive society – a paradigm where we are reduced to the status of consumers and observers, experiencing life through a variety of filters – in fostering feelings of powerlessness and its concomitant rage. Executed to perfection by all involved, hopefully we won’t have to wait another eight years for Ramsay’s next effort.

Swinton and Reilly: the happy couple.