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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on DVDs: We Need to Talk About Kevin

By Mike Wilmington

PICK OF THE WEEK: NEW

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (Also Blu-ray) Three and a Half Stars

U.S.: Lynne Ramsay, 2011 (Oscilloscope)

I. We Need to Talk

The movie, a real horror movie that really horrifies, is called We Need to Talk About Kevin. Based on the novel by Lionel Driver, it was directed and co-written by Lynne Ramsay, the Scottish filmmaker who also made Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar (2002). Her films, sometimes set in poverty (like Ratcatcher), sometimes on the fringes of society (like Morvern Callar), often dealing with death and guilt and morality, are grim — none grimmer than this one, which takes place in comfort and suburban ease, a scary movie about the pain of bourgeois parenthood, a noir in sunlight.

Here is what horror is, or can be — not the artificial fictional terror horror of a maniac running wild with a chainsaw, or a corpse rising from the dead to feed on the living, or the devil or ghosts attacking and devouring a soul, or monsters from outer space devouring humanity, or any of the other mostly overused, mostly underthought clichés of the popular horror movie — but instead something that could actually happen, maybe next door, maybe to people you know (or think you know), people living a human, credible nightmare in a sunny, expensive, suspiciously bare American suburban home. A mother, a son, a father, a daughter. We watch them. We watch it all (or the mother watches it all, from the “safe“ vantage point of memory), as she scrapes red paint from the white front and door of her home, paint that is meant to signify blood — blood that someone has shed..

How did it all begin? How does any life begin? The father marries the mother, impregnates her. They seem like nice people. But she didn’t want the baby. Maybe she doesn’t want to be married, or wants to continue her exotic single life in New York City and around the world as a travel writer. It’s a hard childbirth. Something is wrong. The son is either a late bloomer, or damaged, or perversely stubborn. He talks late, is toilet-trained late, ignores his parents when they try to instruct him, lets his mother toss a ball to him on the floor, but makes no attempt to catch it. He is unkind, selfish, cruel, a real little bastard, amused by the chaos he creates.. But he‘s not abnormal, says a doctor. In fact, he’s smart. Maybe too smart.

Here is what is happeneing — maybe. The mother dislikes or resents her son. The son resents or hates his mother. She tries to teach him; he tries to frustrate her. The father misunderstands everything and thinks the son is a sweet little boy and the mother maybe delusional. The daughter is tormented by the son, scarred by his sadistic pranks. He is not just bad; he seems evil. But this is just the beginning. The worst is yet to come.

The family are called the Khatchadourians — which suggests the name Aram Khatchaturian, the Russian composer of the Saber Dance. The mother is Eva (played with a beautifully controlled fine-boned chill of guilt and anxiety by Tilda Swinton). The father is Franklin (John C. Reilly, who makes him a big warm good-hearted shaggy teddy bear of a guy, with a sometimes ugly expression). The daughter, the youngest, is Celia (played by Ashley Gerasimovich as a little darling whom nobody should hurt). The son is Kevin, played as a child by Rock Duer, as an elementary school boy by Jasper Newell, and as a teenager by Ezra Miller. An unholy three, they all freeze your blood at times — partly because they’re playing something close to pure evil, partly because they show us how evil can function, why it can sometimes outsmart good. And partly because they’re all so cute.

Certainly Kevin is at his cutest when he finally listens to Eva, as she reads him the tale of Robin Hood, champion Saxon archer — and his father, whom Kevin plays like a bassoon, later buys him a bow and arrow, and he becomes a crackerjack archer, who can always hit his target. (“Don’t miss much, do I?” said Martin Sheen, as Kit, the Charles Starkweather type, in Badlands.)

Hitchcock said that he thought his movie villains should be attractive, because otherwise it would be hard to understand how they could get so close to their victims. (Maybe he was thinking also of the beauty of the cinema, of how close it can get to us.) Kevin has pretty-boy looks  in an exotic dark-eyed Keanu Reeves sort of way — and in certain ways, he looks, more and more as he grows up, like Eva. He‘s his mother’s son, but he doesn’t play her game. And he’s so beautiful that people — notably Franklin — let him get away with murder. He’s a narcissist who imagines that all the world is watching him, or wants to. We don’t see Kevin’s friends, either male or female, at school — a flaw in the film, though not in the book — but we imagine he has followers and admirers, and that he plays to them, as he plays to Eva.

The movie goes back and forth in time, in the oblique narrative style favored by Ramsay. It begins with a huge, sensuous overhead scene of a vast writhing mob of people, all covered in red, Eva among them, ecstatic as she’s transported yjrough the wet, scarlt bodies, in a celebrated Spanish event, the tomato festival (“La Tomatina”). After this, Red becomes a lietmotif of the film, which even backgrounds Eva with tomato soup cans. And throughout, she keeps scraping away at the red paint on her home, the symbolic blood on her door. In the movie’s “present,” she’s a pariah of the town. She gets a job as a secretary at a travel agency, endures rude advances from a co-worker (Alex Manette). She is slapped by a stranger. People blame her for whatever it was that Kevin did. What was it?

SPOILER ALERT

We keep looping back, but when the worst horror of all finally comes, Ramsay doesn’t even show it — only the wicked smile on Kevin‘s face as he surrenders to the police. The last scene, a year later, is a meeting with his mother. He looks ashen; she looks composed. Maybe he didn’t hate her after all. Maybe she didn’t reallu hate him. But…

END OF SPOILER

2. Why

In some ways, I didn’t really like We Need to Know About Kevin; in fact, I found the whole movie profoundly disturbing. But sometimes, art should disturb and a horror film should really horrify, even if it averts its own eyes, and ours. This one IS certainly a work of art, and a horror tale that gets to you. Lynne Ramsay is a fine, deeply accomplished filmmaker, who shouldn’t have had to wait ten years between her last two films, and the cast is a splendid one, particularly Tilda Swinton, who soaks up your attention like a blotter, and whose pale, well-sculpted face and quiet tense delivery — like Ezra Miller‘s — cuts  into your mind.

Everything about the movie seems carefully thought out, carefully sculpted and impeccably finished. In fact, that’s my problem with We Need to Talk About Kevin: in a way, it’s too artificial and too carefully crafted for me, the dialogue too minimlist, the color too co-ordinated, the characters and events too symbolically arranged, the paint too carefully applied. I like movies, or other kinds of art, where the life bursts through (as it does here in the Tomatina scene) — or sometimes, by contrast, where that life is so carefully contained, so stylized, that you have to try to find it yourself, scraping away the red.

Life does burst though in We Need to Talk About Kevin (and so does death) but, for my taste sometimes, not enough. Yet the film has extremely powerful moments  and so does its cast, When horror becomes human, as it does here — something happening next door, something we need to talk about — it strikes more cruelly, wounds more deeply.

EXTRAS: Featurette with interviews with Ramsay, Swinton, Miller and others; Additional footage from the “Tomantina” Festival; Swinton in conversation at Telluride; Interview with novel author Shriver; Trailer.

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Wilmington

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“Let me try and be as direct as I possibly can with you on this. There was no relationship to repair. I didn’t intend for Harvey to buy and release The Immigrant – I thought it was a terrible idea. And I didn’t think he would want the film, and I didn’t think he would like the film. He bought the film without me knowing! He bought it from the equity people who raised the money for me in the States. And I told them it was a terrible idea, but I had no say over the matter. So they sold it to him without my say-so, and with me thinking it was a terrible idea. I was completely correct, but I couldn’t do anything about it. It was not my preference, it was not my choice, I did not want that to happen, I have no relationship with Harvey. So, it’s not like I repaired some relationship, then he screwed me again, and I’m an idiot for trusting him twice! Like I say, you try to distance yourself as much as possible from the immediate response to a movie. With The Immigrant I had final cut. So he knew he couldn’t make me change it. But he applied all the pressure he could, including shelving the film.”
James Gray

“I’m an unusual producer because I control the destiny of a lot of the films I’ve done. Most of them are in perfect states of restoration and preservation and distribution, and I aim to keep them in distribution. HanWay Films, which is my sales company, has a 500-film catalogue, which is looked after and tended like a garden. I’m still looking after my films in the catalogue and trying to get other people to look after their films, which we represent intellectually, to try to keep them alive. A film has to be run through a projector to be alive, unfortunately, and those electric shadows are few and far between now. It’s very hard to go and see films in a movie house. I was always involved with the sales and marketing of my films, right up from The Shout onwards. I’ve had good periods, but I also had a best period because the film business was in its best period then. You couldn’t make The Last Emperor today. You couldn’t make The Sheltering Sky today. You couldn’t make those films anymore as independent films. There are neither the resources nor the vision within the studios to go to them and say, “I want to make a film about China with no stars in it.”Then, twenty years ago, I thought, “OK, I’m going to sell my own films but I don’t want to make it my own sales company.” I wanted it to be for me but I wanted to make it open for every other producer, so they don’t feel that they make a film but I get the focus. So, it’s a company that is my business and I’m involved with running it in a certain way, but I’m not seen as a competitor with other people that use it. It’s used by lots of different producers apart from me. When I want to use it, however, it’s there for me and I suppose I’m planning to continue making all my films to be sold by HanWay. I don’t have to, but I do because it’s in my building and the marketing’s here, and I can do it like that. Often, it sounds like I’m being easy about things, but it’s much more difficult than it sounds. It’s just that I’ve been at it for a long time and there’s lots of fat and security around my business. I know how to make films, but it’s not easy—it’s become a very exacting life.”
~ Producer Jeremy Thomas