The Films of 2011: We Need To Talk About Kevin

Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin is a welcome antidote to so many of this year’s safe, bloodless audience-pleasers.  It is strange, unsettling, angry, and bitterly funny.  The story of a mother’s antagonistic relationship with her son (who ends up orchestrating a high-school killing spree), its roots are in the horror genre—in films like The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby, which take troubling questions about motherhood and child-rearing (what is this being growing inside my body?  what if I don’t love it?  how, as a woman, am I expected to feel about a male child?) and run wild with them.  Like those films, Kevin is defiantly anti-realist.  It isn’t interested in pathologizing or explaining.  It doesn’t offer any easy answers to the question that’s most often asked in the wake of disasters like the Columbine massacre, “why?”  Rather, it's a kind of nightmarish fantasia on the violence of children and the related violence of maternity, on the nagging, sometimes intricately paranoid fears that go along with the business of raising children, particularly mothers raising sons.  And it succeeds beautifully. 

The film is set in a vaguely surrealistic world where each day is dotted with acts of sudden, inexplicable hostility.  Terror, Ramsay devilishly suggests, begins at home.  After the birth of baby Kevin, chronically tense mom Eva (Tilda Swinton, superb) finds herself rattled by his non-stop cries, which almost seem aggressively directed at her.  Mundane acts of child-care such as feeding and diaper-changing become battles of will: food and excrement are Kevin’s first weapons.  Later, in Kevin’s teenage years, Eva finds her attempts at casual mom chat met with mockery and a steely gaze.  Ramsay takes the “innocent” frustrations of parenting and casts them in a chilling, exaggerated light so that they become spooky, portentous, over-determined.  In another film (or on most television sitcoms) the same scenarios would be played for laughs, but Ramsay’s humor is a nervous and ironic one.  There’s a wonderfully twisted scene in which Eva, nursing a bed-ridden but curiously affectionate young Kevin by reading him Robin Hood, thinks she’s made a breakthrough, only to discover later the reason behind his sweet smile: the story has given him the inspiration for his new weapon of choice, a bow and arrow.

Ramsay is not always a precise artist, but that’s what I like most about her films, which are imperfect but consistently fascinating.  She’s a visionary filmmaker who layers sounds, images, and words imaginatively, who knows how to sustain mood and tone, and how to use music to comment on action instead of solely as an emotional shortcut.  The pleasures of We Need To Talk About Kevin are the primal pleasures of cinema: of immersing the viewer in a kind of fugue state beyond logic or rationality, where the images come at you insistently, curiously.  As with David Lynch’s films, we don’t need to understand what’s happening every second on a logical level: we’re happy to be lost in Ramsay’s creepily beautiful dream world.         

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