We Need to Talk About Kevin (UK-US 2011)

Alienating parenting

This is the best film I’ve seen that’s been released this year. Fabulous source material (I’ve not read the book so was happily unaware of the dénouement), brilliant performances by Tilda Swinton and the succession of Kevins, an encapsulating sound design that unsettles and utterly brilliant direction. And I didn’t mention Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography or Jonny Greenwood’s music. The set design too . . . Lynne Ramsay managed to pull all this off with a budget of $7m! See interview.

It’s nearly 10 years since her second film, Morvern Callar, was released and Ramsay’s inability to get her third film made for so long is a sad testament to the state of film-making generally, and in the UK in particular.  In addition we lost her version of The Lovely Bones along the way. Ramsay is a brilliant director because she tells the story through rich visuals and doesn’t simply rely on performance and script. Throughout the film the colour red is a motif (whether it be present as a teddy or a kettle or whatever) haunting the frame and preparing us for the climax. The clowns on the doctor’s wall, as the mother tries to find out what’s wrong with her son, mock her with their sinister expressions of laughter. I could go on . . .

My habit of reading very little about a film before seeing it paid off with Kevin as I didn’t know what he did (that he did something is obvious). So I could see the film, and this is also how the book is structured, as being about a mother who cannot bond with her son; no fault is apportioned for this. Uncomfortably I suspect most parents can remember moments when their children’s behaviour seemed monstrous to them and in this resides the power of Lionel Shriver’s novel. I won’t spoil the climax but knowledge of this changes the way the mother-son relationship is perceived as it would seem to offering an explanation of events rather than being about parenting a ‘difficult’ child.

I need to see the film again to fully appreciate the richness of the mise en scène and the CinemaScope framing. Ramsay brings an arthouse sensibility to the melodramatic mise en scène of Ophuls and Ray, using the home as a place of entrapment and alienation but allowing long takes to play out rather than moving quickly on for the LCD (lowest common denominator) audience (or should that be ADHD?).

One criticism is the casting of usually excellent John C Reilly whose ‘downtrodden’ persona infects his performance as Kevin’s dad who’s oblivious to his wife’s problems. He simply comes across as a dumb male rather than one who’s being manipulated by his son.

Will someone with the ability to greenlight a film project tell Lynne Ramsay she can do whatever she wants for her next film. I think she could be the greatest British director we’ve ever seen.

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3 comments

  1. Roy Stafford

    Well done! You got in first but I think we will all want to get in on the act. Not that you’ll get any disagreement from me. I’ve been mulling over the film for 24 hours and I think that it may be the best British picture since Black Narcissus or The Red Shoes (and all that red, Ramsay must be a Powell fan!). The CinemaScope frame is used in a way that we haven’t seen for a long time and nobody sees the world quite like Lynne Ramsay. I did wonder about starting the film by quoting yourself – the net curtains fading to white is the start of Ratcatcher? – but she sails effortlessly on from there. The whole opening sequence is brilliant.

    I like your reference to Ray and Ophuls – there is definitely something sinister in the architecture of that horrible house in Connecticut that makes you think about Bigger Than Life. I guess you are also thinking about Reckless Moment. Strange how both those titles featured James Mason! (I’m trying to think about Tilda Swinton as a star like Mason.)

    I agree wholeheartedly on the sound design. Greenwood’s score is good, but what really hit me was the use of Buddy Holly and the Beachboys. Ramsay says that David Lynch has always been important to her and I think that ‘Everyday’ and ‘In My Room’ here have the power of Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’ in Blue Velvet. But it’s the Lonnie Donegan connection that really got me. Is this some kind of surreal Scottish dig at American suburbia? I had to look Donegan up. He was born in Glasgow but quickly moved to London. I hadn’t realised that he had two big hits in the US and played the big US TV shows in the 1950s. But now we have Ramsay and Swinton giving it to the US. Tilda Swinton is indeed a goddess.

    I wonder what anodyne pap will get all the Oscars this year? I’ve already seen one website fearing that this film won’t even be nominated, but as a piece of cinematic art nothing so far comes near it (though Poetry and A Separation are excellent film narratives).

  2. Rona

    I think that Ramsay has such a masterful grasp of the kind of melodramatic cinema of surfaces – like Powell, like Ray – she has such an incredible eye for detail and colour within the frame, that as you say Nick, it’s impossible to take in all the detail on one sitting. The cinemascope is crucial somehow in referencing Ray’s dramas in suburbia but it made me feel (not sure how far this works) how Ray’s films have such a pronounced depth of field. in memory, Ramsay and McGarvey’s frame appeared relatively foreshortened and brought everything much closer to the front and flatter. Emotionally, I think it made me feel closer to the protagonists than I wanted to be – the frequent close-ups on Swinton’s face – brilliant internalised emotion filtered through dark, alien eyes – face and eyes just like her son’s. Scenes such as in the car – where they are balanced on each side of the frame and up against the screen – added to the strung-out tension this film managed to maintain throughout. It was unbearable but entirely watchable – beautiful like Kevin and equally as cruel!

    Protagonists who live on the inside and not the outside and have various degrees of guilty secret are a feature of Ramsay’s previous films – James, the truly beautiful boy in the Glasgow tenements ofRatcatcher, Morvern who escapes to Andulucia. We can but weep, as you say, over what she would have made of the internalised narrative of The Lovely Bones – but her films are bonded not by any false themes; instead its their tremendous ability to evoke the emotion and texture of place and the meaning of these for their characters. The clean surfaces and geometric kitchen of the family home speak volumes about Eva’s devastation following on from the teeming masses of bodies that fill the screen and writhe alongside her on one of her adventures prior to domesticity and children. But the story is not just a study in entrapment (such as Revolutionary Road delivered in its muted Sirkian form) but a study in the fear and powerlessness of motherhood. (It has to be interesting that this was a well-attended ‘mother and baby’ session at a local cinema here in the North of England?!) Much of it is strangely ‘relatable’. The visual doubling of Eva and Kevin is particularly pertinent to a sense (whether we are children or parents or both) at the uncomfortable likenesses to those we are related to, even in our own less extreme narratives.

    I’ve seen Seamus McGarvey at Edinburgh Film Festival – he is a patron – and he has interviewed other cinematographers such as Roger Deakins and Anthony Dod Mantle as part of the programme there previously. I think these three make an interesting case for DOPs who are photographic artists on screen and really justify something towards equal billing. McGarvey always gives away credit in these sessions – but his work with Sam Taylor-Wood and now Lynne Ramsay (alongside his more famous association with Joe Wright) seems to be really fruitful collaborations for his photographic sensibilities and (like Deakins and Dod Mantle) demonstrates an interpretative artistry with a variety of film techniques and stock – a commitment, really, to fitting the style to the content of the movie with absolute precision in the tone of colour and light being used within the frame.

  3. keith1942

    I was surprised by the high praise above. I thought the film was very good, especially stylistically – visually and orally. However, I was less impressed with the treatment, down I should think to the script.

    I have not read the book, but friends who have suggest to me that it is more ambiguous than the film.

    I thought the start was terrific, but I did wonder if Ramsay and her colloborators could keep up such fast cutting between present and flashbacks. And in fact as the film progressed these became longer and slower. This is when I felt the film started to become fairly predictable. And my interest lessened.

    I see what is meant by the use of colour, however I thought the connotations were rather limited: certainly compared to The Red Shoes.

    I wonder if the US setting affected this. With Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar I was impressed with the concrete context – something I felt lacking in this film.

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