Sunday, November 13, 2011

Whatever Happened to Crazy?

The house was nearly packed for We Need to Talk About Kevin, a deeply unsettling but extremely well-made film from director Lynne Ramsay, starring and co-produced by Tilda Swinton. Based on Lionel Shriver's 2003 novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a psychological thriller told from the vantage point of Eva Khatchadourian, the mother of the titular Kevin (played variously by Ezra Miller, teenager; Jasper Newell, childhood; Rock Duer, toddler). Where the novel as I understand it was epistolary, taking as its structure a series of letters from Eva to her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), the film is set two years after the kid's spree and uses non-linear flashbacks from various stages of Kevin's life. The effect is exceptionally unnerving, as the details of Kevin's deed (and Eva's devastation) are only slowly revealed in carefully juxtaposed fragments. (Jonny Greenwood, of Radiohead and There Will be Blood fame, turned in another aptly disquieting score here, and the film's soundtrack is rounded out by the occasional old pop song, the cheeriness of which stand in stark contrast to the images on screen, only heightening the unease.)

Though the book has been out for about eight years, I won't reveal too much about the plot, given how purposefully and meticulously Ramsay sequenced the film. Suffice it to say, Kevin's a a teenage serial killer, going on a spree just around the time of his 16th birthday.

The way I see it, Ramsay is saying a couple of things about such acts of irrational, inconceivable violence. The film's focus is not on any particular aspect of culture that critics on the right and left seize upon to explain phenomena like school shootings, but on the mixed-up machinations of the self, especially as it relates to those most intimately involved in one's upbringing: parents and, specifically, mothers. While other characters, reflective of the general culture, may hold Eva accountable for her son's actions, and while she no doubt lives with unbearable guilt, what the viewer sees would never lead one to believe that she were a bad parent. Indeed, to me, the only "explanation" for Kevin is an extreme psychological disorder. (I'm reminded of Chris Rock's take on Columbine: "Everybody wanna know what the kids was listening to. What kind of music was they listening to? Or what kind of movies was they watching? Who gives a f--k what they was watching? Whatever happened to crazy?!").

In Kevin's case, his motivation seems to have stemmed from an inexplicable but lifelong hatred of his mother -- not, again, so far as one can tell, based on anything she'd done. Even as a baby, he would only cry around her, only ceasing in the presence of his father, Franklin. (So disruptive a baby was he that Eva temporarily wheeled the stroller near a city worker wielding a jackhammer on the street, in a vain effort to drown out his screams and cries.) That kind of behavior serves as a template for their relationship in the future, from potty-training to helping with chores: Kevin would always oblige his father, acquiescing only rarely to his mother and only then for future blackmailing material or to throw her for a loop. His seemingly unconditional relationship with his father was, too, one gradually (and then abruptly) realizes, a charade he orchestrated to torment his mother. Eva's unbroken, motherly love for Kevin, if most painful to watch, is still plausible to the viewer, but it's something Kevin cannot understand himself.

There's probably more going on in the film, but I feel confident saying that Ramsay is focusing clearly on the self and psychology. Like many films about personal rather than historical evil -- for me, Michael Haneke's Caché (which, obviously, also had as much or more to do with cultural and political issues) comes to mind -- We Need to Talk About Kevin will make you question having children. I got the impression afterward, as the credits rolled and upon subsequently soliciting the opinions of a few attendees, that many in the audience found the film too disturbing to be in any way redeeming. But again, a film may make for uncomfortable viewing and still be a successful work of art; thought-provoking on the one hand, well-made in just about every way on the other. -- Zack Shlachter

1 comment:

Zack S. said...

I should add that Kevin's evil is incredible and almost hyperbolic; what's surprising is not that someone so evil would engage in such violence, but that someone could be that creepily evil in the first place, from the time he was a baby. But the film is, after all, billed as a thriller, and more importantly, it's making a point. (This is the kind of distortion that reveals, as Flannery O'Connor might say, and all that jazz.) Perhaps sheer insanity is too facile an interpretation on my part...