Two of PW's resident movie critics--and recurring contributors to PW at the Movies--Mike Harvkey and Rachel Deahl discuss Lynne Ramsay's new adaptation of Lionel Shriver's Orange Prize-winning 2003 novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin (Counterpoint).
RD: So let’s talk about Kevin. It’s not usually proper to start a critical take on something with someone else’s opinion, but I got a kick out of Rex Reed’s comments about this film. He was downright pissed, calling it a “vile, pretentious movie” and even going so far as to say director Lynne Ramsay is a “poseur.” I only bring it up because, while I think Reed’s off-base (and getting a little personal), this is a polarizing film. And I hated it, but also kind of loved it. It’s vile, and I’m still not sure whether it’s vile in a good way or not.
MH: I’ve never taken Rex Reed seriously as a film critic (or actor) precisely because of what his review of Kevin tells us: he was effected viscerally by this film (it made him feel like crap) and now he’s striking back, almost as if in self defense. I can understand the need to lash out at the film, or at Ramsay, whose formidable facility with the tools of her trade has always made for some highly discomfiting cinema. Ratcatcher’s bleak fury gave way to Morvern Callar’s suicidal ennui. And now, after some other failed projects, she arrives with We Need to Talk About Kevin, her most harrowing and unsettling film yet. My question to you, Rachel, I suppose, is this: since we’re obviously not meant to enjoy this film (any more than Tilda Swinton’s Eva enjoys raising her demon seed), and the idea of admiring it (which is to say admiring Ramsay’s ability) is sort of academic, then what’s its purpose?
RD: That’s a good question. Its purpose—the movie’s purpose, that is—is to upset us. To make us squirm. And wince. And, on some level, feel like Rex Reed did—violated, annoyed and very uncomfortable. There aren’t a ton of movies that set out to make us feel bad, so when you come across one that has the balls to be gallingly bleak and refuses to uplift, it’s kind of exciting. It’s also upsetting to see notions we hold rather near-and-dear in this country, especially ideas about motherhood, depicted in such a dark way. But you’re right—admiring this film is a little academic. I guess there is a part of me that thinks this film’s greatest achievement is making the viewer feel like sh*t. Whether that’s enough is a separate question. As I recall, when we walked out of the theater, you had some issues with the bad seed theme of the film. Did you think it was too simplistic?
MH: My main problem wasn’t so much with how literal she took the bad seed element (she herself, in an interview, likened Kevin to “the son of the Devil,” though Ezra Miller took exception to that simplistic take on it when I spoke to him), but how black-and-white she rendered the community’s reaction to Kevin’s violent act. I’m reminded of a lesser film that dealt with the same subject in a straightforward and maudlin way, Beautiful Boy. One of the things that film got right, to my thinking, was the way it rendered a pretty complex aftermath for the parents of a kid who goes on a kill-crazy rampage. Not everyone in Beautiful Boy wanted to publically stone the parents; there were a few moments of compassion, or at least complicated emotions. But in Ramsay’s world—which is black and white and red and yellow—poor Eva was as much as monster, in the eyes of the community, as her spawn. I know, as I type this I know, that this is Ramsay’s intention. To point a furiously shaking finger at the mother. It’s always the mother’s fault. I just wish she’d brought more nuance to the idea. But maybe I’m asking for too much. I hate to criticize any film—or book—for what it chooses not to do.
RD: Before we go any further, since we are a trade magazine about the book publishing industry, I’d like to point out that not only is this film based on a book (Lionel Shriver’s novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin), but Ezra Miller, on of the film's stars, is the son of longtime industry fixture Bob Miller (who’s currently publisher of Workman). I digress. Where were we? Oh yes, Beautiful Boy and the literal-mindedness of the community reaction to Kevin’s violent act in this movie. I haven’t seen Beautiful Boy, so I can’t comment there, but I didn’t really find the community reaction over-the-top. This film is so insular—90% of the action centers on Tilda Swinton in a house or an apartment—that when our heroine is out-and-about in the world getting eggs tossed at her, or being spit on, it felt entirely plausible to me. There’s a reason the residents of Springfield go right for the pitchforks whenever something ruffles their feathers on The Simpsons, and I’m only partially joking here. I think a mob mentality comes into play with certain issues in this country, and violence against children is one thing that tends to incite the pitchfork-wielding masses. Whether or not it’s logical, or fair, someone needs to be blamed when bad things happen, and that, to me, is what was happening here. In a way, I saw the suffering Swinton’s character faces as an indictment of our need to have answers, and someone to blame when tragedy strikes.
MH: Well said. As Ezra Miller told me (in a piece for Nylon Guys), to him, the film isn’t about answers, it’s about starting a discussion. He literally said: “Yes, we need to talk about Kevin.” It seems to be working.
RD: One thing that’s a bit frustrating to me, though, is a film that pushes the ‘no answers’ thing by literally providing no answers. I think there are ways to leave questions open-ended without depriving your audience of a certain amount of closure. I also felt, on some level, that the characters were a bit one-dimensional. It’s an oddity of the film that it has this gut-punch effect on you—when we walked out of the movie I told you that I felt like I’d taken repeated hits to the midsection (well I don’t think I ever uttered the word “midsection,” but let’s go with it anyway)—yet it has no real interest in showing how the events depicted change its characters or make them grow. I found that disappointing, and somewhat problematic.
MH: I think it was “bread basket,” wasn’t it? Before, I argued for nuance, but really, how can a film about a Columbine-like act provide answers? Unless we’re talking about the sort of answers you get in an Emenem song (“Where were the parents at!?”), reductive at best (if catchy). To ask for answers in this case is to want an explanation for a human being, and no one is going to reveal the terrible complexities of their character via a quick peek under the hood. I think, as with Black Swan, it could be a case of mistaken identity. Most people want to know what a film “is.” I remember discussion around Black Swan that explained some negative critical reactions by saying it was a horror movie and that it had to be judged by those standards. This is the thinking I think I’m coming around to with Kevin, though even this I find problematic. He’s the son of the Devil, and Ramsay employs all the cinematic ticks of a monster movie (splashes of color, unsettling sound design, shock cuts, crazy angles). Maybe what we have here is a monster movie, clear as day, but we’re too close to the actual horrors it portrays to see—or enjoy—the movie as such. But now that I think about it, in monster movies, the monster is almost always clearly explained. Godzilla? The Host? American excesses and irresponsibility. Michael Meyers? Jason Voorhees? Parental abuse or neglect, poor stewardship (see Emenem). And this may be what Ramsay’s saying. The answer? Kevin’s our fault. Well okay, but who wants to go to the movies just to get a bunch of blame sprinkled on your popcorn?