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We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) – Blu-ray review

February 24, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

The Blu-ray is out on Monday, with reds that have never looked redder, symbolism that has never looked more symbolic and extras that really ought to be better.

We Need To Talk About Kevin 2011 Lynne Ramsay Tilda Swinton


We Need To Talk About Kevin
(Lynne Ramsay, GB, 2011)

We need to talk about Lynne Ramsay’s inability to let the emotional violence speak for itself with thuddingly obvious symbolism

The near-misses are always the most disappointing. In many ways, We Need To Talk About Kevin comes close to being a cast-iron classic but, in trying so hard for perfection, it loses something at its core. The irony seems to have bypassed Lynne Ramsay that the story revolves around a psychopath who spends too long trying to hit the bullseye – because her perfectionism is the biggest problem about her film.

Ramsay bypasses many of the pitfalls that might have derailed this project. It’s very un-Hollywood in the treatment of its subject matter (what if a mother didn’t love her son?), eschewing the obvious temptation to make a Rosemary’s Baby / The Omen-style potboiler with freak accidents and hysteria. Ramsay is too cool for that, so pitches things as a fragmented tale of grief, the mother’s story ricocheting through her life like shards of an accident. It’s a bold gambit, which gives the climax the feel of inevitability, and a chilling grip that imbues the most mundane activity with hidden meanings – or does it? By starting at the end, and focussing so subjectively on Eva’s regret, the film throws a massive pebble into the water. It’s impossible to see a true reflection of Kevin’s personality for the ripples.

This is the right way to play the material – or would be, were it not for Ramsay’s insistence each ripple is art-directed to death and shot in such lingering detail it loses its context. Ramsay – a photographer by trade – cannot let go of her imagery, and composes the film in thuddingly obvious symbolism. The family lives in suburbia…but in a big Gothic castle that even Tim Burton would find too outrageous. Later, Eva drives home during Halloween, the faux-ghouls gurning in mock-terror, but arrives at her house, tarred by outraged neighbours for bringing a real life monster into the community.

And junk food addict Kevin (we know he’s a junk food addict because he wears a T-shirt with a cartoon hot dog on it) can’t throw a jam sandwich on a table without Ramsay cutting back to watch the ants feeding on it. That’s because jam is red – the colour of blood, of course. Macbeth talks of “out, damned spot,” but he has nothing on fellow Scot Ramsay, who uses tomatoes, paint, filtered light and quite possibly Mick Hucknall’s hair to turn the screen a deep shade of crimson to get the message across.

It’s film-school level stuff, especially in its overexaggerated counterpoint of an innocent 1950s soundtrack with the reality of Kevin’s inverted nuclear family, built not on hugs and kisses but on glowering resentment and passive-aggressive hostility. Alongside the slow tracking shots and artfully composed Widescreen frames, it feels like Ramsay has based her idea of fucked-up Americana entirely on old David Lynch movies, like Lana Del Rey in movie form.

It’s a shame because none of the symbolism is necessary; everything we need to know is conveyed in Tilda Swinton’s phenomenal performance as a woman who makes one bad choice and lets it determine her whole life. Always a diffident on-screen presence, here Swinton’s haughty superiority produces blowback in the form of a son who clocks her indifference and makes it his life’s mission to teach her a lesson in icy disfain. Too late, Eva realises Kevin is calling the shots via strategic pant-pooing, guilt-tripping and the ability to turn on the charm for daddy on a dime. In her scenes with the frighteningly brattish Jaspar Newell as the young Kevin, Swinton dances expertly on an emotional knife-edge, the psychological violence palpable.

But Ramsay can’t find actors to match her, her other casting decisions based on the same policy of obviousness as her filming style. John C. Reilly, on paper, is the perfect choice as the simple lunk who can’t see the battleground his home has become…but really, do you see Reilly and Swinton as a couple? It beggars belief that they’ve lasted 15 odd years together. And the second Ezra Miller turns up as the teenage Kevin, the game is up. Miller’s is a leering, sardonic, charismatic performance, incredibly watchable with a Joker-sized mouth that can curl up into a sneer, but he tips the film into self-parody. High schools could use this film as ‘spot the psycho’ propaganda in high schools; probably not the effect Ramsay intended.

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