We Need To Talk About Kevin has been one of the most-hyped and most-parsed features at this year’s Film Festival. Anyone who saw it has a pretty strong opinion about it. And while RottenTomatoes gives it a 94% rating, all of the small consensus I’ve gathered seems to agree with my own – and that is that this film is so artsy that it’s circled back to the other side of Cool. But let me recap first. For anyone who doesn’t know, the movie is based on a novel of the same name by Lionel Shriver. Shriver apparently loved the film’s adaptation on her story, which is probably as good of an endorsement as any book-derived screenplay can hope for. Where the novel consists solely of first-person letters written by the main character, Eva, to her husband, the movie tells the narrative in a montage of flashbacks, nightmares, abstract shots, and symbolism. There is no voice-over, no narrator. It’s a brilliant example of why it’s not only okay, but necessary, but repurpose any story to best work with whatever medium you’re using. In that way, I thought the film succeeded very well.
We Need To Talk About Kevin reminded me A LOT of Black Swan (which happened to play at SavFilmFest last year), both for the similar hype-levels and the cinematographic stylings. Black Swan was also a psychological thriller, where most of the graphic and disburbing imagery was borne out of the female main character’s mind. Both movies utilized a lot of abstract images – camera focus devolving into colored shapes, angles upended and sped-up into unrecognizable and haunting forms, incessant symbolism.
Oh, the symbolism. Therein lies my main critique of the movie – it got a little out of hand. We Need To Talk About Kevin is a smart movie. It expects a lot out of the viewer, to suspend their judgement — to go along with the character of Eva even when it’s perfectly obvious that the woman needs to take her little shit of a child to some kind of professional, STAT — to follow the constantly criss-crossing and redoubling narratives of nightmare, memory, past and present. And all of this, I was perfectly willing and able to do. But treat me like the smart viewer you’re asking me to be, and don’t beat me over the head with a symbol in every shot. My writing professor likes to say, “subtlety is an art.” It’s a greater art than imagery.
The movie opens with Eva (and let me get this out of the way now: Tilda Swinton is awesome. But we already knew that) dreaming — nightmaring? — about a past travel experience – the Tomatina festival in Spain. I’d never heard or seen anything of this festival until now, and uh, the way it’s presented, it did not look like tomatoes juice and pulp they were swimming around in. Let’s just say it brought back Piranha 3D flashbacks, and I was about ready to chuck my popcorn and run to the nearest bathroom. So touché, I thought, effective use of symbolic imagery — I mean I know this movie is gonna be about a Columbine-like shooting (oh, how have I not mentioned that yet?) so best prepare me for the bloodbath now. But the RED theme just wouldn’t let up. There is red and faux-gore everywhere, from splatters on Eva’s house, to oozing strawberry jelly sandwiches, and this completely service-y shot:
I understand that sometimes symbolism can trump reality, but when it’s done this often it gets in the way of the story. I did not believe for a minute that Kevin’s vandalizing of his mother’s favorite room in the house with a red paint-filled Nerf gun would end up looking like a Jackson Pollack painting. That just ain’t how those things squirt. I felt like I didn’t need to be constantly reminded of the horror of the school massacre that loomed over this flick — it was on my mind the whole time to begin with. When are they gonna show it? All of it? I kept thinking.
Many reviews I’ve read online like to say that this film exists to ask questions about Nature vs. Nurture. Is Eva to blame for her son’s killing spree? Did her post-partum depression and inability to connect with her child from infancy lead to his sociopathic disposition? It’s obvious that the character Eva grapples with such issues throughout the film. But like I said before, Kevin (played by two geniusly creepy actors, Jasper Newel and Ezra Miller) is portrayed as a complete little bastard; one who defies his mother constantly and destroys her favorite things, but turns on his little angel halo the moment his father enters the scene. Most kids play their parents against each other in a way, but Kevin is all kinds of Children of the Corn-type evil.
Like Black Swan, again, I think I liked this movie. It is beautiful and creative, well-cast (well mostly; I don’t know what the hell John C. Reilley was doing there), fascinating, and highly effective as a psych thriller. But if this movie were one of my essays or paintings, I can’t imagine any of my professors not telling me to “dial it back” a bit. “It’s easier to cut down than to fill in,” says my writing teacher, again, or something along those lines. He also says to “show, not tell,” but in this case I think I could have seen a little less, and could have connected most of the dots myself.
EDIT: Oh, and I forgot to say that this movie was directed by a woman – Lynne Ramsay. I thought that was really important. This is such a male-dominated field, and many of the women who do direct make romantic comedies or emotional biopics or Lifetime programming. If that’s a stereotype I’m sorry, but the shock I felt at learning that this film was made by a woman (appropriate, since Lionel Shriver is a woman) is an exemplification of my perceptions about female directors in the cinema world.