Thursday, November 10, 2011

Love: We Need to Talk About Kevin (Notes from the Chicago International Film Festival)

October is always a busy month around these parts, and November isn’t much better. It seems that lately we can’t get through the fall without all hell breaking loose (in the best way, I suppose), but somehow I always manage to sneak in a movie or two at the annual Chicago International Film Festival. This year, it had been my intention to spend a few days camped in the AMC multiplex the fest calls home. I had big plans to check out whatever the schedule offered me, and to take in more than the usual dose or two of ‘special presentations.’ Work, weddings, and travels out of town interfered with that goal, but fortunately I still took in a couple worthwhile screenings. Next year, maybe I’ll take a few days off. Next year, maybe they’ll update that god awful intro reel (I’m looking at you, Columbia College). Next year, maybe I’ll have time to border jump over to TIFF. Next year, next year, next year. For now, though, part two: let's talk about Kevin.
Every so often I pick up a book I believe myself to have no interest in.  These are usually best sellers and ‘book club’ titles; novels along the lines of The Poisonwood Bible, The Lovely Bones, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Help.  Most of the time, I find my lack of interest validated.  Every so often (The Poisonwood Bible, for example), I’m pleasantly surprised.  Picking up Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin last year was one of those latter moments.  I couldn’t have imagined how engrossed I’d be in a novel so centered on unpredictable violence and uncontrollable offspring.  With Kevin, Shriver tells the story not of the titular boy (though he certainly plays a large role here), but of the woman who birthed him.  In letters to her estranged husband, we receive Eva Khatchadourian’s compelling narration of events; she’s frank, darkly funny, angry, detached, and tragic.   As the story unfolds, building from the bliss of her glamorous life without children to the anguish and unpleasantness of motherhood, the tale sparkles with pitch black insights and even-keeled suspense.   I loved Eva, flat out, and was thrilled to find a female character as complicated, strong willed and honest as Shriver had written her.   Kevin worked for me, it became somehow real, somehow personal, and I’m still shocked by how effective it was.   That’s why, though I knew that the subject matter weighed heavy and the drama dipped to a devastating low, I couldn’t wait to see this film.
It’s taken me nearly a month to get around to writing this review.  There’s much that I’d like to say and much that I simply shouldn’t, as this is a story best approached blindly.  I’ll try to effectively critique the visual layering occurring here without revealing too much, or leading you too far astray.  What you should know, going in, is that Kevin is an emotional horror story.  Shriver seemed to intend it as such and auteur director Lynne Ramsay has filtered the book’s contents, capturing its poetic essence on screen and bringing us symbolically loaded frames in which food frequently seems to double for blood and vandalism is an act of violence akin to the slashing of human flesh.  Shades of crimson do incredible amounts of work here, and the tremendous strength of the visuals (and hairstyles) keep us tethered to a strict timeline in the story’s nightmarish chronological flux.
In print, the overarching bleakness could be kept at bay by the vibrancy of the epistolary narration.  Here, Ramsay has made the startling decision to omit Eva’s verbal presence.  We don’t talk about Kevin, or we barely do.  Eva speaks, of course.  She’s played, to a tee, by the perfectly cast Tilda Swinton.  Her dialogue, however, is the stuff of mere pages and not volumes.  Instead, we are shown Eva’s fractured life in fitting, flying colors.  Swinton can say more with a facial expression than most actors can say in an entire film, and we know that Eva was never the motherly type.  She tried, yes, and sometimes succeeded, but perhaps not willingly.  What we know about Eva, what I can tell you, is that Kevin is guilty of something awful.  He has done something inflammatory, destructive, and vile, and Eva is forced to live with it daily.  She’s tormented and downsized.   We’re with her as she’s haunted by events outside of her control and made to suffer with constant, uncivilized reminders thoughtlessly gifted by neighbors and strangers.  We watch her toil, watch her face fall as she sees her porch has been doused in paint, watch her want nothing more than to flee when she sees a familiar face down a grocery store aisle.  This is a woman who will buy a carton of broken eggs instead of taking the time to go back and face her tormentors.   This is a woman who wants nothing more than to go where nobody knows her name, if that’s possible.  She suffers almost silently, as she takes the misguided abuse of her neighbors.
Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (with Ramsay close by) has managed what should be a textbook example of how to achieve a character study through visuals.  Between McGarvey and Ramsay, food becomes a horrible fixation.  We watch as teenage Kevin (Ezra Miller) takes on a new affection for the peeling and chewing of lychee fruits and we’re disturbed, sickened by their Halloween-likeness to eyeballs.   Consumption, disposability, the gnashing of teeth; all are conceived as violent acts.  The film is stained with crimson in every incarnation:  a gleeful food fight becomes the site of a symbolic martyrdom, paint and lipstick become unsettling objects, spilled wine is no less than creepy.   Everything works in a dirty synchronicity.  The actors themselves - Swinton, Miller, and the two other boys who play Kevin in his younger years (Jasper Newell and Rock Duer)- are stark canvases in high contrast black and white; pale, cool, each with their own devilish allure and reptilian gaze.
 Swinton is phenomenal, this goes almost without saying.  As Eva she begins strong and self-assured, a worldly amazon, only to become defeated, trampled, gaunt and weary by her demon spawn.  There’s a neutrality to the story, an ambivalence  inherent in Eva’s character that makes it unclear which side of the nature vs. nurture debate Kevin’s crimes fall on. Kevin is a first-class Damien, a regulation bad seed, it seems, almost from the get go.  There’s something wrong with him, and yet, Eva lives debating whether or not she could have changed this outcome.  If it was ever up to any action of her doing.  Swinton aces it, but she has three chillingly unsettling children to work off of.  Ezra Miller and Jasper Newell, in particular, deliver compelling, strikingly creepy performances that ensures you won't forget their faces for some time to come.  Miller has already had successful turns in City Island and Afterschool, but misfit teen Kevin is his breakout.  At the festival, John C. Reilly (who stars here as Eva's blissfully ignorant, well-intentioned husband) mentioned that Miller and Newell spent a lot of time together on set practicing mirroring each other's facial expressions and body language.  They became the same character at different ages, successfully, each with dead eyes and a cold, malicious smirk.  They're so frightening, in fact, that it perhaps becomes difficult to believe that Eva is the only one capable of seeing the darkness in Kevin's psyche.  If that's the film's only fault (and it might be), it's not exactly an egregious one.  We can hope the Academy embraces this dark mix of sound and vision, and that people do talk about Kevin.  They should.  They really should.


  1. Ezra Miller is painfully beautiful, and John C. Reily CAN DO NO WRONG..i didnt see it yet...again I REFUSED to pay the OUTRAGEOUS prices this year...REFUSED...

    PLUS this "Next year, maybe they’ll update that god awful intro reel (I’m looking at you, Columbia College)"


  2. Well, I mean, you'd think a film fest sponsored by a school that supposedly prides itself on film tech things would maybe try to make itself look a little more impressive...

    Yeah, it's really just shit. I have to like, look away when they run it because it makes me want to hulk out...


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