Instead of issuing birth control pills or contraceptives, one needs only to show Lynne Ramsay’s superb new film to high school classes as a deterrent to early pregnancy. For the eponymous child is a distillation of the collective fears and anxieties brought on by challenge and exhausted state of new parents. Eventually, when limited time allows, parents might even consider how to balance unconditional love with discipline and a healthy morality? The latter, big, questions are the unspoken crux of the relationship between two smart, educated parents that are saddled with the little boy from hell.
Visually, the film itself seems to reside in Hades, I suppose Tilda Swinton’s headspace after giving birth, and is in equal measure, soaked tomato juice, ink and bodily fluids and bathed in harsh red filters. here hasn’t been this much red in a film in some time and there is enough compulsive scrubbing on display to make Lady MacBeth blush. We Need To Talk About Kevin is a domestic drama that veers far more into horror film territory than either of Lynne Ramsay’s previous directorial efforts. She has put together only three films, all of which are masterpieces, over the past 12 years, and each of them has a particular attention to visual and sonic detail. but here she is particularly effective at assaulting the audience with her craft.
The film is singular in purpose and sense with signs and signifiers further enhanced with its flashback-slash-hazy-memory structure, such that one might consider the film the antithesis of Gus Van Sant’s clean-cut linear school shooting daydream, Elephant. Young Kevin seems marked from birth to be the Antichrist; the kind of child that his mother Eva’s (a moniker close enough to Eden’s failed female denizen, likely intentional) capacity for unconditional love stretched to and beyond the breaking point. Couple this with a well meaning but clueless father, John C. Reilly, who is both shuffled into the background and somehow still the driving force for family decisions, and there is a recipe for a polemic – borderline didactic – take on failed motherhood.
The film pushes so far into making its ‘points’ or providing reasons that it completely transcends criticisms of being facile, and moves into pure visual sensuality. This requires a particular kind of actress (one both chilly and sensual) who is capable of embracing difficult roles. Who better than Tilda Swinton? She makes Eva’s compromises, choices, and defeated guilt in the aftermath of a school shooting elicit a delicate empathy even as everything is stand-offish. This is no easy feat as Ramsay keeps upping the bar for shock and horror, almost to Gaspar Noe levels at times. A magnificent use of music which underscores the hazy emotional quagmire or adds ironic counterpoint to a scene rivals the director’s Movern Callar. Further use of sound design has a toddler’s constant screaming is cross-faded to a jackhammer as Eva’s life is in both a stasis and a tailspin, the sound of a suburban sprinkler as a harbinger of pure horror. Johnny Greenwood contributes a There Will Be Blood tinged score which is quite appropriate, considering both that film and this one involve broadly essayed human monsters.
With all of the advertisements and silly pap in the media landscape regarding raising a child in the 21st century, as well as the nascent ‘childless couple’ movement generating its own odd form of controversy, a new kind of culture war, We Need To Talk About Kevin, is to modern parenting what David Cronenberg’s Videodrome was to increasing sex and violence on cable TV. That is to say, unsettling, icky, and full of vigour.