Sometimes a bad review can pique your curiosity about a movie more than a good one. So it is with Michael Sicinski's review in this week's Scene of We Need to Talk About Kevin, opening today at The Belcourt.
Lynne Ramsay's fragmented psychological drama about a traumatized mother (Tilda Swinton) looking back through a fog of grief, guilt and anger at the actions of her remorseless, conscience-deprived son (Ezra Miller) was one of the standouts of last year's festival circuit. In what he admits right off the bat is a difficult pan, Sicinski pulls off the tough task of appreciating an artist's plainly visible talent while concluding that the work fails at a crucial level:
[It] was with Morvern Callar (2002), starring Samantha Morton, that Ramsay announced herself as a world-class director. Less a narrative than an act of cine-portraiture, Callar follows its title character, a supermarket clerk, in the wake of her author-boyfriend’s suicide during the holidays. ... A sort of feminist riff on Antonioni’s The Passenger, Morvern Callar is as concerned with surfaces (blinking lights, hotel curtains, close-ups of sweaty skin) as it is with “knowing” who Morvern is. Ramsay’s achievement was knowing when and how to back off and let images do the talking.
This remarkable skill makes Kevin that much more frustrating. Calling it a disappointment does not adequately convey the extent to which this movie has the capacity to irk. ... Ramsay loses control of the material very early on. For one thing, Eva’s guilt is made external, so that much of Kevin is spent with Swinton’s character functioning as a town pariah-cum-punching bag with no clear reason why. This militates against any development of personality or viewer identification; when combined with Reilly’s aw-shucks demeanor and Miller’s Kubrickian-to-the-hilt demon-spawn theatrics, it’s unclear whether Ramsay is playing Kevin for horror, tragedy, or broad farce.
Likewise, Ramsay’s use of scrambled chronology, while theoretically justifiable as an externalization of Eva’s traumatized subjectivity, is leaden and overdetermined, rather like watching someone else assemble a jigsaw puzzle. The shots fall quite beautifully into place, based on rhyming color schemes (blood red is, um, a big favorite), direction of movement, or some particular object or image. But because of these exactingly formal correlations, it’s next to impossible to relate to the image-chains as Eva’s impressionistic thoughts. The heavy hand of the artist is far too visible.
But here's the thing. That's not the kind of bad review that signals dull, dispiriting business as usual. Rush Hour 3 or Zookeeper this ain't. That's the kind of bad review that suggests a movie is polarizing, unusual, attempting something you haven't really seen before. Truth be told, it made me want to see the movie more than the glowing reports out of Cannes or New York last year.
And so I did.
All I'll say, for now, is that I haven't been able to get it out of my head, and that I both agree and disagree with Sicinski's (first-rate) review. But I really want to talk about it with people who've seen it. So if you go — I hope you will — please report back in the comments thread below, love it or hate it. And in honor of Sicinski's reference to Miller's "Kubrickian-to-the-hilt demon-spawn theatrics," we're passing along three helpful illustrations, in the clip reel at the top, of the patented Kubrick Death Glare.