For an alternate take on We Need To Talk About Kevin, check out Ronan’s Doyle’s review.
Like a raw, vicious fever dream that takes over our consciousness and never lets go, Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin rattles the psyche and ravages the soul. The film is an extraordinary example of cinematic artistry, the year’s most bold and unflinching glimpse into a fractured mindset. It is hysteria-as-cinema, the year’s most aggressive descent into madness.
Prepare for the journey, because the film doesn’t take it easy on the viewer. In fact, Ramsay seems insistent on imprinting these images on our brains with such blunt force that it would be easy to disengage on principle. This is not a welcoming film – its style is so brash and cacophonous it might seem pretentious. Its content is so barbed and angry it could come across as arch. It takes an active will to sit through We Need To Talk About Kevin, but it rewards the willing viewer with some of the most urgent, daring, insistent storytelling to flicker on a screen in 2011. The film refuses to approach its material with a literal gaze, instead leading the audience down a rabbit hole of battered psychoses, telling a tragic story through the lens of toxic shock syndrome.
A surface logline would say that the film is about a mother struggling with guilt in the aftermath of a tragedy perpetrated by her son. But that kind of simplicity cannot begin to approach the depths of grief and guilt, the persistence of splintered memory, and the frantic hysteria of a woman riddled with doubt amid an emotional upheaval, desperate to reconcile where she started with where she is now. We Need To Talk About Kevin is a snapshot portrait of a life that started with adventure and promise, descended into a suburban rut, and now sits in ruin, forever tortured and ultimately futile.
Tilda Swinton, the most courageous, open, and honest of all actors working today, is Eva. Eva was once a celebrated author who wrote of grand globetrotting adventures; now she is a low-rent travel agent in a town filled people who hate her. She was once married to Franklin (John C. Reilly) after a joyful whirlwind courtship; now she lives alone in an empty house, her consciousness in perpetual flux. There was a time when Eva participated in elaborate celebrations in exotic locales; now she is fearful of stepping out in public, facing the hateful, judgmental stare of the outside world. Eva’s frequent dips into her gutted, bleeding subconscious are the only fragments that can bridge the gap between her former and current selves – we can only patch these fragments together to understand what led Eva into this psychotic inferno.
The film we experience for 112 agitated, disorienting minutes is a first-person representation of life as Eva experiences it. That life is a waking nightmare, plagued by memories that rush in a vaguely linear fashion, jolted into a reality that seems curiously unnatural. In abbreviated flashbacks, we see an Eva whose euphoric happiness came to a vicious halt when she became pregnant with Kevin, and whose life was forever tainted by a child who frequently acted as a demon spawn. He cried incessantly as an infant, and he willfully disobeyed as a toddler. Whether Kevin was truly as evil – and Eva as bitter and despondent – as they are portrayed cannot be objectively known. Ramsey only provides us with the flickering recollections of the present-day Eva, whose battered consciousness cannot be trusted.
However, it can – and does – engender a deep, shattering empathy. In its prickly, insistent manner, this is a portrait of futile, flailing humanity, broken into pieces that can never be put back together. This portrait is strikingly cinematic, mounted with extraordinary depth and complexity by Ramsay, who bases her screenplay on a novel by Lionel Shriver but renders the material in a completely cinematic context, richly symbolic and profoundly abstract. It would seem experimental, if it didn’t so purposefully navigate from one spring-loaded gut punch to another.
Ramsay presents the material in a way not unlike Terrence Malick’s approach to The Tree of Life – a vivid pastiche of non-linear sequences that synthesize as a powerful whole – though dare I say, Ramsay’s decision is far more intentional. While Malick’s film, extraordinary as it is, was honed down from the wealth of material he originally shot, Ramsay uses disorganization as an organizing principle. Who knows if Eva’s life unfolded exactly as she remembers it – if Kevin was born wicked or if Eva should bear responsibility for his actions – because she is now too shattered to recall with clarity. She calls on disparate sounds, images, and colors to paste her life together in her own mind. And we watch – riveted, hypnotized, terrorized – because regardless of the past, Eva is too damaged to have a future.
[notification type=”star”]99/100 ~ MASTERFUL. We Need To Talk About Kevin is cinema at its most vivid, wrenching, and revelatory – an abstract masterpiece about the withering fragility of the human soul.[/notification]