Saturday, December 17, 2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

We Need to Talk About Kevin
Dir. Lynne Ramsay

4 out of 5

A dowdy Tilda Swinton steps out of her dinky cottage home near the beginning of We Need to Talk About Kevin, only to find her entire porch streaked with rivers of bright red paint. It's the mark of a pariah, and we quickly learn - by way of a brief visit to the local penitentiary - that Swinton's bad seed of a son (Ezra Miller) has committed unspeakable sins that are now visiting themselves on the mother. To outsiders, Miller's crimes are isolated tragedies, a marginal evil that irrevocably changed their lives in the course of one terrible day. What director Lynne Ramsay daringly asks us to imagine, however, is what it would be like to live with and work against that sort of evil for sixteen years. Might we have a little sympathy for the devil?

Quickly jumping backwards in time, Kevin shows us a carefree Swinton and her paramour, John C. Reilly, taking a plunge into domestic life as the result of an unplanned pregnancy. For vague reasons it's Swinton, formerly a globetrotting writer, who ends up as the stay-at-home parent. The job that fills her with more than a little ambivalence. It doesn't help that little Kevin returns the favor from infancy all the way to adolescence, putting on a sweet face for his permissive dad while secretly terrorizing mom with behavior that grows ever more malicious. More than anything, it's Swinton's nuanced performance that keeps the film's dark fantasy grounded just enough for it to have a horrifying plausibility. It's the most thankless role of the moviegoing year. Though we may be titillated by the prospect of what nefarious deed the boy will do next, she must somehow try to love such a child while hiding her disgust and disenchantment.

Of course, we already know that things will not end gracefully for this family - if the film's disjointed narrative doesn't tip you off, Ramsay is right there with blunt visual symbolism and constant foreshadowing. Swinton aside, several of the characters are written with an annoying obliviousness that nudges them into Lifetime territory, inured to a narrative that might as well be bathed in blood. But that's all secondary to the extreme - some would say honest - portrayal of a mother-son relationship gone sour for reasons that defy simple explanation. Is Miller simply a sociopath, or could Swinton have saved him by being a better parent? Ramsay doesn't give us an easy answer to this question, and the result is movie that masterfully combines pulpy melodrama with ravenous psychological horror, relentlessly asking us to absorb a parent's guilt whether or not we think she has earned that privilege.

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