Thursday, December 8, 2011

Chilling "Kevin" hard to shake

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) 
112 min.,. rated R.
Grade: A -

If horror genre psycopath Michael Myers lived under his parents' roof until he was a teenager, he might've turned out like Kevin, a bad seed without the mask. Unlike the structurally straightforward but rawly affecting "Beautiful Boy" from earlier this year, "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is not about the shocking event that a sociopathic son commits but the aftermath. Instead of both parents, this particular story is told from the view of the mother. It might have been problematic as a glib exploitation pic, but really, it's a horror drama about grief and birth being the root of all evil that's as devastating and unsettling as parenting can be. Though treading on the ground of "Bad Seed" horror-movie tropes, "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is gripping, uniquely constructed, and tragically powerful.

Willful and difficult, Kevin Khatchadourian was born a bad seed, a true monster since he came out of the womb. Too much discipline was above Kevin and he would play his mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton), and father, Franklin (John C. Reilly), like violins. As an infant, he was unruly, refused to stop crying and screaming, and seemed unaffected by his mother's affection. As a youngster (played by Jasper Newell), Kevin would commit acts of sabotage, like spraying ink with a squirt gun on the walls of Mommy's home office and smashing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich face down on the glass coffee table. By the time he hit his teens, Kevin (taken over by Ezra Miller) became even more alienated and misanthropic that no one could connect with him. Flash to the present, after Kevin is in jail for perpetrating a Columbine-like massacre at his high school, and Eva is at the end of her rope. She feels dead inside, washing the red paint vandalized on her shack of a house and afraid to show her face to the mothers of the killed children. Eva is so ridden with guilt that she feels to have committed the crimes by proxy. Although Eva is still alive, she's the real victim.

Based on Lionel Shriver's 2003 novel, director Lynne Ramsay takes some liberties with the gut-wrenching material without lessening its emotional impact. Ramsay and first-time writer Rory Kinnear do not use the first-person narration from the source material (told as a series of letters written by Eva), nor do they need it. "Showing over telling" is always the virtuous decision. Also, such a decision of telling a story out of chronological order is often rendered confusing and needless, but the fractured style of storytelling works here. Besides the narrative being carefully structured, we see the reason for Ramsay presenting it this way. Cross-cutting from Eva's present nightmare to her upbringing of Kevin, the story is more about what happens than the possibilities of why it happens. 

Rather than taking the easy way out with a rationale for Kevin's heinous behavior stemming from supernatural forces and the like, it's clear Ramsay is not interested in giving a clear-cut answer. Eva's ambivalence and reserve to conceive can be seen, and neither of Kevin's parents were meant for parenthood, which makes for a spawn not meant to love. Eva has such a hard time loving her son because he's a reflection of her, made clear by imagery of Eva and Kevin dunking their heads into water. This mother and son have one face. And Kevin wants his mother's attention so much that when she throws him to the floor and breaks his arm, he says it's the most honest thing she's ever done to him. Finally, when visiting her son in jail, the tension is nearly unwatchable. The time we've been waiting for approaches when Eva asks Kevin why he did what he did. He responds with, "I used to think I knew. Now I'm not so sure." 

Some scenes might have been more sensationalized, but Ramsay dares not to spoon-feed us any explanation or exploit Kevin's evil deeds. Reasons to why little sister Celia's pet guinea pig ends up in the garbage disposal, and whether or not toxic drain cleaner intentionally poured onto her eye, are both left to Eva's and our suspicions. When a young Kevin (Jasper Newell) puts up a fight with Eva in learning his numbers, then defecating in his diapers twice out of spite, Kevin is already an evil, defiant brat. Only does the material sometimes feel right out of 1976's "The Omen," 1993's "The Good Son," 2007's "Joshua," and 2009's "Orphan" as Eva is seen as the overreacting parent by husband Franklin, even when we know Kevin is a manipulative demon. This is a frustrating stand-by in movies, but here, it further grips and chills us.

"We Need to Talk About Kevin" is peppered with artful touches without feeling overdirected or overedited. Ramsay opens the film with a startling fever dream of an image: writhing, tomato juice-covered bodies, one of which belongs to Eva, crowd surf in a mosh pit. From then on, the motif of the color red is ominous but feels a tad overdone, as are some of the folksy and golden-oldie songs. However, Ramsay employs effectively disconcerting sound design, from the ticking of sprinklers to the crunching of cereal, and blades scraping across glass. And as for two of the few music exceptions, Buddy Holly's cheery pop tune, "Everyday," is put to chillingly ironic use as Eva drives past trick-or-treaters on Halloween night, as is The Beach Boy's "In My Room" when Eva searches Kevin's bedroom.

Swinton is such a fiercely striking chameleon, never afraid to dive into any role and find nuance. As Eva, she gives the performance of her life (even after her transgender work in 1992's "Orlando and Italian fluency in 2010's "I Am Love"). She shoulders all of the pain not only from the awful crime her son has done but from feeling almost responsible. There's a deep distinction between the past and present scenes in Swinton's portrayal, aside from her short cut and long hair. Her face can express more uncertainty and devastation than any dialogue. Ezra Miller (who broke out playing another troubled teen in 2008's "Afterschool") is creepy and coldly calculating as Kevin in teenager form, having even less of a moral compass as his body matures. With a mischievious, devil-child glint in his eyes, he's detached, disturbed, frightening, and gets under our skin. Even Jasper Newell, playing Kevin at ages six through eight, lays the groundwork for Miller and makes Damien of "The Omen" look like Shirley Temple. Thanks to the casting director, Miller and Newell actually look alike and look like they could be Swinton's real sons. John C. Reilly, a character actor always given the chance to show his comedic and dramatic chops, works with the grimmest material of his career. As Franklin, Reilly is blindly oblivious, only seeing the good in Kevin, but never an outright fool. Buying his son an archery set probably wasn't the best gift idea. 

Given the dark, tough nature of the material, "We Need to Talk About Kevin" does indeed talk but refuses to provide answers. Any filmmaker can rationalize such subject matter, but Ramsay is too intelligent for that, forcing us to juggle our own arguments. Two things are for sure: this hard-hitting film is an effective contraceptive and it will unnerve and haunt you forever.

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