Thursday, February 9, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin

There had been talk of an Oscar nomination for previous winner Tilda Swinton for her role as the mother of a child who grows up to be a school shooter in Lynne Ramsay's "We Need to Talk About Kevin," but neither Swinton's one-note performance nor Ramsay's structurally flawed film matches the power and complexity of Maria Bello's work in the similarly themed "Beautiful Boy."

The fact that Swinton is an android - or, at best, a unicorn - doesn't help matters. Her Eva hates her son almost from birth - rightly so (he's evil incarnate) - and her attempts to interact with him peacefully feel like they come out of a space alien's manual on child-rearing. (A scene in which she leans over and kisses Kevin looks like the enactment of a how-to illustration.) Swinton and John C. Reilly are about as plausible a married couple as Morgan Fairchild and I. And when Swinton takes Kevin miniature golfing, you have to wonder whether the movie is an extended SNL skit - she blends in about as naturally as the San Diego Chicken.

Because Kevin is so hateful and sociopathic ab initio - he evinces all the classic indicia of a serial killer - the movie has nowhere to go but an endless parade of horribles heaped on Swinton. Kevin tells Eva the maps on her wall are stupid. She tells him she'll help him paint his walls, then goes to take a phone call. What do you think Kevin does while she's out? I'll give you two guesses and the first one doesn't count. Later, the family pet - a gerbil - disappears. Who do you think's to blame? Gee, I wonder. Then Kevin's younger sister sustains an injury so bad she needs a glass eye. But when Swinton suggests Kevin did it, Reilly tells her she needs therapy. Please - Kevin would have been put away years ago, or at least given up for adoption.

And that's the fundamental problem with the movie: There's nowhere to take the character of Kevin, and really nowhere to take the character of Eva, either. If Kevin didn't butcher half the county, THAT would have been a shock (though the method of killing is almost laughably artsy). And what does Eva have to do but incur the wrath of her son and later the community he victimized? (An old woman comes up to her and slaps her face; a male co-worker calls her a stuck-up bitch who could never get another man.)

The movie jumps around in time throughout its 125-minute duration, offering images and scenes from Eva's mind, almost like a cinematic memory quilt. Ramsay is a sure-footed director, and I hope we don't have to wait another decade for her next project, but "Kevin" has none of the beautiful, painterly images that vaulted her "Ratcatcher" to the middle of my 1998 top-ten list. That "Kevin's" disjointedness is intentional doesn't prevent a certain hemorrhoidal antsiness from setting in. I urge you to check out "Beautiful Boy" instead - it's so much more interesting to wonder what made a loved and loving son capable of a heinous crime.

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