Telluride at Dartmouth: We Need to Talk About Kevin

This post continues to chronicle my attendance at the Telluride at Dartmouth program at the Hopkins Center for the Arts. Days 1 & 2 can be found here.

Lynne Ramsay is a director of exceptional visual and aural skill, as anyone who has seen her films Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar can attest. I adored Ratcatcher and found Morvern Caller rather a bore, which seems to be a somewhat idiosyncratic view, as lots of people who saw both loved the second film even more than they did the first. What we can all agree on, though, is that a new Lynne Ramsay movie is a cause for celebration. And when that new movie stars just about my favorite living film actor, Tilda Swinton, it becomes for me a great event.

I have not read the acclaimed novel by Lionel Shriver that We Need to Talk About Kevin is based on, and I was just about to read it when I heard about the film, so I decided to wait. I have seldom wished I had read a book before seeing a movie based on it, and so whenever possible, I don't read the book first. That turned out to be, it seems, an especially good decision here, because I had dinner after the film with friends, some of whom had read the book, and it was clear that that would have changed my viewing somewhat by adding more context to Swinton's character of Eva.

Ramsay is brave and nearly alone among narrative filmmakers in her willingness to subsume almost all exposition within image and sound -- to suggest, hint, and gesture toward exposition rather than state it. (It is no surprise that Tarkovsky and Malick are to her taste, and in Ratcatcher she even used some of the Carl Orff music from Malick's Badlands.) What we get in We Need to Talk About Kevin, then, is not so much a story as a portrait of a psyche. Things happen, certainly, and there's a major climax that the film works its way toward, but the movement of the film is associational, imagistic, musical. Meaning is created not through dramatic scenes, but through colors and sounds, camera angles, montage, repetitions. The story is not presented so much as unearthed -- this is filmmaking as psychic archaeology.

The film's slow revelation of the events at its heart is its most traditional feature, and one that creates tension and suspense. However, I don't know if it's a feature I much like. On one hand, it's good to have tension and suspense. On the other hand, it feels a bit like a cheat, because it puts the audience and the characters on very different levels -- in the present-time scenes, the characters all know what has happened, and so their behaviors are explicable, but the audience stays ignorant, though we certainly intuit early on that Something Bad Has Happened. Had the movie been solely concerned with Eva's mind and perceptions, it wouldn't have hidden so much information; obviously, then, the movie is not solely concerned with Eva. Or, to look at it differently, Ramsay and co-screenwriter Rory Kinnear thought we would be better able to experience and evaluate Eva's perceptions if we did not share her knowledge. (Or they may have just decided to stick with the book's structure; I'm told it is as slow to reveal the major events as the movie is, if not slower.)

In a traditional narrative, keeping the viewer (or reader) from knowing the climax of events is a standard method for creating suspense and tension. It's not a technique that much interests me (I generally read the last chapters of thrillers first to get rid of the annoyance of suspense so I can pay attention to more interesting elements), but it's certainly the most popular sort of structure, one that provides for many people a primary pleasure.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is not a traditional narrative, however; it's nonlinear, moving back and forth through time, with its main logic associational rather than causal. I need to see the film again, now that I know how it all turns out, to settle my feelings about its determination to keep the audience in the dark.

While the last fifteen minutes of the movie answer most of our questions, at least one is left hanging and, in fact, only exacerbated by the revelations at the end: Why did everyone seem to hate Eva so much? One of my friends at dinner said this is explained much more clearly in the novel, where there is a trial sequence that is not in the film. My friend feels that Eva is, in the novel, an unreliable narrator who has a persecution complex, and so her guilt about her failures as a mother gets externalized as a feeling that everyone is against her. This may be something the film was trying for, too, but it didn't work for me, because at the end Eva is shown to have lost much more than just her son. (In fact, she hasn't entirely lost him.) There's no reason that I saw in the film for her to be such a pariah. However, the narrative is entirely within her subjectivity, and if she feels like she is a pariah, someone hated by everyone she encounters, then we inevitably see things through her eyes with little ability to judge otherwise.

There's a difference in point of view between the first-person, epistolary novel and the very-much-within-Eva's-perceptions film. The difference is one of authoricity. The novel is presented as Eva's own writing -- she tells her story. It's extremely difficult to pull off such a point of view in a film without making it a film-about-a-film, and We Need to Talk About Kevin makes no attempt at that. This change in point of view also relates to the question (problem?) of the delayed revelations -- it makes plenty of sense that Eva wouldn't explain or even discuss the climactic events were she writing about it all herself, but it makes less sense in a movie that she is not authoring.

Despite my reservations about the script, I admire much about We Need to Talk About Kevin, and I am thrilled to see a narrative, almost mainstream film using something other than the most traditional, conventional cinematic grammar. The acting in the movie is exceptional, the cinematography (by Seamus McGarvey) elegant and affecting, the editing (by Joe Bini) lyrical and smart. Special mention must be made of the music and sound design by Jonny Greenwood and Paul Davies -- I can't think of another recent film that so fully benefits from its soundtrack from beginning to end. Perhaps a few too many of the songs have on-the-nose lyrics (much as I love Washington Phillips, his "Mother's Last Word to Her Son" seemed a bit heavy-handed), but that's a minor sin in a soundscape of such richness and complexity.

While Ramsay certainly has some traits in common with Tarkovsky and Malick, the comparison seems superficial to me because she's less enigmatic. (I could easily see those directors leaving at least part of the climax completely out of the film altogether, letting the meaning come from lack, forcing us to confront how we fill in the blanks.) A closer comparison might be made to a director she is more different from on the surface: Hitchcock. He was similarly sensitive to sounds and sights, and, like Ramsay, little interested in being subtle and ambiguous about it all. Vertigo remains a fascinating movie because (among other things) it is so ostentatiously about its colors. We Need to Talk About Kevin is also very much about color, and also ostentatious -- for instance, no sentient viewer could miss the symbolism of all the red in the visually striking first few minutes. That doesn't make the images any less striking -- their color, shape, and movement is far more evocative than the symbolism we inevitably attach to it. Like Vertigo, putting words to it all weakens it. This is a movie that needs to be a movie, a movie where the force of the effect, if not the meaning, comes from its cinematic qualities. It is, in its own way, the "pure cinema" Hitchcock advocated.

(For more on the film, see Jonathan McCalmont's excellent consideration of it, one which differs a little bit from my own.)

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