We Need to Talk About Kevin: the evil of banality 

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Lynne Ramsay’s new film, an adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s epistolary novel, is a very difficult film to pan. In doing so, one risks giving the impression of being against challenging cinema in and of itself. This is because on its surface, We Need to Talk About Kevin is an exceedingly complex film, one that departs from linear storytelling in order to find a form more adequate to the psychology of traumatized memory and fleeting subjective impressions. Ramsay’s film, in which a grieving wife and mother (Tilda Swinton) takes stock of her shattered life in the aftermath of tragedy, is nothing if not ambitious.

The Glaswegian Ramsay is one of the leading lights in the generally dull, beige world of British cinema. Whereas even the U.K.’s finest auteurs — most notably Mike Leigh and Ken Loach — tend to take hardscrabble working-class realism as an axiom, Ramsay instead followed the path of poetic oddball Terence Davies (whose latest film, The Deep Blue Sea, will be out in a few months). Her early works, Gasman (1998) and Ratcatcher (1999), followed Davies’ interest in the drifting, introspective moments of working-class existence, the psychology and reverie between spasms of the survival instinct.

But 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. Taking his completed manuscript as her own, Morvern occupies her lover’s creative life, traveling to Spain and discovering the side of him he presumed she couldn’t understand. 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. Eva Khatchadourian (Swinton) is a travel writer who largely gives up her work, agrees to move to a stifling suburb, and becomes a stay-at-home mom upon the birth of her son Kevin. (The teenage Kevin is played by Ezra Miller, from Antonio Campos' film Afterschool.) Some of these changes are at the behest of Franklin (John C. Reilly), Eva’s far more conventional husband, who is more than happy to settle in, get out of the city, and spend weekends mowing the lawn.

Almost immediately, Eva notices problems with Kevin. First, he won’t stop crying. Then he goes silent. Then, after an abnormal period of complete silence, he begins speaking — in complete sentences. Later on, violent, unexplained events just seem to happen around Kevin, but only in ways that Eva would even catch. Eva consults psychologists, but the boy is shrewd enough to game them; he’s never found to be the least bit abnormal. In front of Dad, Kev’s just perfectly normal. Naturally, the film’s final third consists of Kevin proving that Eva was right to worry.

In some sense, Shriver’s novel is probably unfilmable, consisting as it does of Eva’s recollections, her processing of parental guilt, and the constant movement of her memory as she tries to discern both why Kevin “went wrong,” and why she could never love him the way a mother is presumably supposed to according to instinct. Kevin is, among other things, an examination of post-partum depression, the social pressure placed on professional women to make room in their lives for children whether or not they want to be mothers, and the assumption, even in our post-Freudian age, that mothers are to blame when children turn out to be monsters.

But 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. (Compare Kevin to the graceful associative editing one finds in mid-period Alain Resnais — whom Ramsay may have been emulating here — and you’ll find his is an elegance you can really get lost in.)

By the time Kevin nears its conclusion, what we have are two leftover souls from a life that has essentially evaporated — or more properly, been forcibly expunged. Kevin claims, not as a defense but as a partial explanation, that his grisly actions were about the need to be seen, to break through the noise and command an audience. Ramsay and Miller’s literal-mindedness on this point notwithstanding, Kevin is Eva’s story, largely because, as she comes to discover, she was always intended to be her son’s ideal viewer. Every act he committed was an “act” staged for her. (The opening shot is of curtains blowing open, as on a proscenium.)

Once there is no more performance, she generates something else, a kind of “performance” of the mundane. (The final shot is of Eva making Kevin’s bed, a rather direct visual quotation from Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman.) We just look at Eva as she tries to “make a home.” This is the sort of image — simple, penetrating, crystalline, whole — that Ramsay’s film should have been full of. No less than Kevin, every film has an ideal viewer too. But in the case of the oppressively schematic We Need to Talk About Kevin, I really don’t know who that might be.

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