Discussion of what the Academy Awards overlooked has been unusually lively this year. This seems curious with such a respectable list of confirmed nominees, but as it turns out the list of contenders from 2011 could be (and should be) far more impressive. After all the fuss over Steven Spielberg, Michael Fassbender, and Drive, there’s been one collective snub to rule them all this year.
At the inducement of lavish critical praise, I made a special trip to see Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, adapted from Lionel Shriver’s novel of the same name. The film stars Tilda Swinton as Eva, a mother dealing with the fallout of her firstborn child’s unspeakable crime. Okay… it’s not an outrageous SPOILER, since heavy hints begin dropping early on, to reveal that her son Kevin has shot up his high school, leaving Eva not simply shunned but aggressively persecuted by her neighbors and fellow parents in the wake of the incident. She is essentially trapped in hell, and her motives for hanging on and not fleeing are mighty ambiguous for a while. Can she really not escape, or does she view this as penance for having made a bad child? She spends the duration of the film working out the answers, reliving her strained and often terrifying relationship with the boy from his birth to the present day.
On this journey through a grieving parent’s fragmented memories, the revelations grow darker with every new incident we witness. Quiet, painful bitterness pervades almost every encounter between Eva and Kevin from his earliest days. This does not seem to be a factor between the boy and his doting father (John C. Reilly), which only increases Eva’s burden of guilt and frustration.
The evolution of Mommy’s Little Monster is hard enough to watch without the exploitative extremes that a lesser director would embrace, but fortunately Lynne Ramsay goes in for none of that. Some parts are very difficult to watch, but the camera tends to pull away just in time, vividly implying what it would be tasteless to depict onscreen.
Not simply a hair-rising portrait of how badly a child can turn out, this film meditates soberly on an uncomfortable but very relevant topic. How much can a parent be held responsible for having produced a sociopath? Do bad seeds simply happen, end of story? What could have been done differently? If Kevin’s violence and hostility are intrinsically reactions to something, then what crime were they meant to punish? The script freely offers hints, theories, and possible answers, but never claims to solve the horrible mystery behind the nature of evil.
That all this comes across in a film so economical with its words and images is a sign that it’s incredibly well made. Award nominations for Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly would be well within reason, as they juggle some very deep flaws and powerful conflicting emotions without either one becoming wholly unsympathetic. In addition, Lynne Ramsay deserves recognition for a magnificent directing job. We Need To Talk About Kevin runneth over with emotional gravity, but never becomes a guilt trip for the entire human race, or a sadistic anti-humanist exercise on the level of Michael Haneke. It keeps dealing out surprises, even though we know the story’s big twist from the beginning. It provides enough clues for numerous interpretations, but declines to provide a single definitive answer, allowing viewers to interpret the ultimately unexplainable as they will. It plays a lot like real life — real life at its most bleak and upsetting, to be sure, but it works because it mostly rings true. Skill is needed to tell a sad story well. Consider the number of hollow, downer-for-its-own-sake dramas floating around out there, pretending to be important. Well who’s renting you now, Crash? How are the video sales going, 21 Grams? And Antichrist, just because I’m in the mood, shame on you once again!
The critical success of We Need To Talk About Kevin, outside the Oscars race, speaks for itself. It takes minimal poking around to see how many awards this film has already won or nearly won. Internationally, folks. Internationally.
This film will upset you. This film will follow you home and haunt you. This film takes courage to face. You will not forget this film. Give this film a try.