I have somewhat a shameful bad habit as a critic – sometimes, I cannot bring myself to write about the movies that transfix my senses and command my thoughts. Look through my pages of reviews and see the scores of films at the top of the list – “Shame,” “Spring Breakers, “12 Years a Slave,” “American Hustle,” “The Big Short” – all without a formal review. It feels mostly rooted in a desire not to demystify the experience combined with a feebleness before the work. What good can my words really do in the face of such a colossus of art?
Tonight, I sat before my editorial calendar with a big gaping hole in my schedule. Nothing new left to review, nothing old particularly pertinent to a new release. What to write about, especially given the horrendous events dominating the news? (If you read this further out from publication and June 12 is not a date branded in your memory, I wrote the sentence you are reading in the wake of the slaughter at Pulse in Orlando.) Then, I remembered one film that I have been long overdue to appraise. Roughly five years late, as a matter of fact.
If you didn’t read the title or look at the poster, that film is Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” a chilling look behind the headlines at the mother of a murderer. Of course, a one-to-one correlation between the Orlando massacre and the killing at the center of this film is not the point. The murder weapons are different, and the family environments and the means of radicalization are likely dissimilar as well (though answers are not known now). As we enter the backstretch of this decade, I cannot shake the feeling that this film will be among its definitive works and most potent responses to the crises of our time.
The film primarily takes place in the aftermath of the carnage carried out by the titular character with frequent flashbacks to the past of Kevin (Ezra Miller) and his mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton). In such times, we cast a backward glance to determine the cause of the present. And “cause” is just a polite word for “blame.” Once we know where we can point the finger, we can shake off the act.
I come to bang out this piece with the words and sounds of countless politicians, thinkpieces and cable news segments about Orlando swirling around in my head. It’s about gun control, some say. It’s about ISIS, declare others. It’s a hate crime, a mental health issue and probably countless other causes that my mind does not have the space to store.
Yet while I respect these journalists and newspeople, I found myself turning to artists for solace and understanding. That final scene from “Milk.” Charlie Chaplin’s powerful monologue from the end of “The Great Dictator.” The big address from the end of “The King’s Speech.” (Yes, I still resent it beating “The Social Network,” but I don’t have an ice chest in place of a heart.) Heck, even the comedy news stylings of Samantha Bee and Seth Meyers. It is artists who can take one step back from the messy business of the day and attempt to bring some perspective, highlight the complexity and sometimes even restore some prudence.
Lynne Ramsay brings a variety of perspectives, techniques and approaches to adapt Lionel Shriver’s epistolary novel into cinematic terms. She finds a pulsing, urgent narrative throughline to carry the patiently doled out details of Eva’s suffering on the page. What Ramsay assembles in “We Need To Talk About Kevin” is truly the gold standard among films that dare to delve into the cycle of violence that rips apart communities. We can see its destructive ends, but the multiplicity of factors that culminated in such an act form too great a web to untangle. That does not stop her from pointing out each thread.
We first see Eva from a godlike high shot as the camera presents her like a martyr, being carried in the shape of a crucifix above a tomato-throwing crowd at La Tomatina. If Christ is to be understood as sacrifice, then her role as the mother to a monster definitely fits the bill. Kevin goes away after the act. Eva still has to be a part of society and bears the brunt of all lingering hatred, resentment and anger. As the closest thing to a public face for Kevin, she takes it all on.
But would that it were so simple – “We Need To Talk About Kevin” also posits her role as that of the modern Lady Macbeth, constantly left to curse “Out, damned spot!” as she attempts to scrub the blood off her hands. This provides an extra dimension to her torment, a private shame to match her public humiliation. Eva’s role as scapegoat, however, implies a certain blamelessness; neither Ramsay nor the world around Eva let the character forget she is not without fault.
The debate of “nature vs. nurture” gets a lot of play in the wake of lone wolf attacks, and this film certainly provides plenty of fodder for continued discussions. Eva has her moments of pure, unbridled frustration with Kevin that qualify as bad parenting under anyone’s definition. Instances such as when she choose to drown out his cries with the droning clang of a drill rather than give him affection and care feel like textbook examples for making a murderer.
Yet Ramsay’s clever editing suggests a more complicated dynamic. Transitions such as the one from Kevin’s prison hallway to Eva’s birth canal suggest a biological link between his beginning and end. Perhaps he was a bad seed to begin with like “Rosemary’s Baby.” Perhaps he was, in part, corrupted by the omnipresence of violence in American culture. While still in diapers, Kevin knows to shout “DIE!” at a video game.
This gentle push and pull between the shots of “We Need To Talk About Kevin” demonstrate its vital message far more than any didactically telegraphed moralizing could. There’s a cosmic symmetry between mother and son, between cause and effect. Their experiences echo but never precisely mirror each other throughout the film. We can spot patterns and reflections, maybe, but never the simplistic correspondence we seek.
And chillingly, Ramsay keeps relevant social issues so front of mind that one can easily remain oblivious to how she is subconsciously building towards an impactful finale by doling out teases, both aurally and visually. After seeing Snapchat video from inside Pulse, I cannot say make the hyperbolic claim that “We Need To Talk Kevin” packs a visceral punch equivalent to that of reality. The horrors of human depravity were on such despicable, demonstrable display in Orlando that few (if any) fictional films could ever match their impact.
But what this movie can do is move that finger we’re pointing in blame. It might be pointing at an issue, a religion, a culture or a person. “We Need To Talk About Kevin” will guide that finger back towards ourselves, first at the brain, and then at the heart. With those two powerful instruments from within, we can begin to comprehend that the problems before us far outnumber the fingers we can point. Maybe we will also allow our sanity and our sympathy to lead us towards playing some small part in solving them. A– /