Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Runtime: 112 min.
Verdict: The year’s most unsettling film.
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Horror
An excerpt from Mr. Ed Gonzalez’s review down at Slant Magazine:
“Ramsay both sets the film's incoherent tone and states her stale feminist agenda immediately with a shot of Eva (Tilda Swinton) being hoisted by a throng of tomato-doused revelers at Buñol's El Tomatino festival. Just as there's no sense of this artfully photographed vision as memory or fantasy, Eva's unmistakably Christ-like pose makes clear who the victim is in this story about a troubled mother-son relationship.”
Mr. Gonzalez is considering the opening of the film, wherein we’re introduced to the whispering silence of, what at first sounds like a ceiling fan and later turns out to be the lawn sprinklers, and a “white” curtain gently blowing. It is dark, except for some faint light from outside. The movies have taught us over the years that when the lights are out, the door’s open, and a white curtain is at the mercy of external forces, we need to be worried. It is a slow zoom, heightening the eerie silence of the moment, and Ms. Ramsay cuts to an overhead shot of the El Tomatino festival Mr. Gonzalez is talking about. Eva (Ms. Swinton) is drenched in red and with her arms outstretched she’s reveling in it. It’s bliss. Not for a moment did Jesus ask me to consider his presence amongst all this, because that pose of his on the crucifix, howsoever iconic in our culture, is not registered against his name. I see Eva, I see a slow-moving camera, and I see a woman intoxicated with the experience. This woman is an adventurer. She is a traveler, and Mr. Gonzalez probably recognizes this aspect of the imagery when he categorizes it under the tag of “feminist agenda”. That’s his reaction, which is fine.
What’s hugely debatable is the blunt judgment at the beginning of his final sentence when he empowers his reactions with the authority of objective truth, and claims there’s no sense of “artfully photographed vision as memory or fantasy”. On the contrary, if one were to take the aid of traditional narrative techniques, like in the opening of L’Affaire Farewell, or more suitably Saving Private Ryan, where an opening burst (former) or the calmness (latter) is contrasted with the subsequent imagery, conveying a shift so to speak, we know 9 out of 10 times it’s got to be a flashback. Or in the case of The Aviator, where a similarly whispering moment of a mother warning a child is contrasted with the cacophony of Howard Hughes right in the middle of a shoot, a flash-forward. The point to note is that such a sequence, especially in the case of We need to Talk about Kevin, where neither the tension nor the drama has been resolved, provides for a fulcrum, a sort of center so to speak, and which needs to be returned to at some point of time in the narrative. Ms. Ramsay exploits this with the skill and precision of a seasoned exponent of genre. The contrast, the abrupt shift is the key. And just because we do not have a face at that moment to which we attach this flashback (memory) doesn’t mean the filmmaker ought to be blamed. As I shall claim later this strategy is intentional.
This empowerment on Mr. Gonzalez’s part leads to further problems, and owing to his assumption regarding the film’s supposed intentions he shifts the blame further on the film:
“I haven't read the novel by Lionel Shriver on which the film is based, but in a recent article for Slate, the author speaks of pregnancy, to Eva, as "an infestation," and her world travels as a means for the character to assert her superiority over others. From this we may glean that Eva possibly did travel to Buñol at one time, that the cartographic wallpaper inside one of the rooms in her luxe manse, like the job she takes in the present day at a travel agency, expresses her search for worldliness, but we shouldn't have to look to the book to help us make sense of the film. Because We Need to Talk About Kevin fails to articulate Eva's desire to travel, it means nothing that the walls in her favorite room are covered in rare maps instead of, say, pink elephants when the malicious Kevin charges into his mother's study with a paint-loaded squirt gun in hand.”
Dear reader, you would observe here how Mr. Gonzalez realizes that “Eva possibly did travel to Buñol” only later, and that the film, by not presenting a face establishes a fact about Eva’s presence there at the very beginning. Had we had a face, a question of fantasy might be worth a consideration. But at that moment during the narration, because of a lack of any hinge, because of Eva’s introduction within that moment, it comes across as a fact. The narrative is framing the subject and not the other way, and we audience respond to that accordingly. Mr. Gonzalez’s confusion is probably a result of the ensuing shift in time, to the present day, where a ragged looking Eva lay on the bed, in which case this edit firmly installs the preceding moment as memory or fantasy. Personally, it was a bit of both, and that is how our most pleasant memories live within us.
But, again, what’s wrong is Mr. Gonzalez’s conclusion that we need to read the book to make sense of those images and connect them to Eva’s love for travelling. Again, on the contrary, it is pretty obvious, and had Mr. Gonzalez shown some flexibility in reading the El Tomatino posturing beyond the symbolic Jesus-on-the-crucifix, he might have left some space to let the joy of the moment affect him. I haven’t read the book either, and yet I would want to claim that We Need to Talk about Kevin quite economically and quite magnificently articulates Eva’s desire to travel. This little tomato moment is as much a synecdoche for Eva’s free-spiritedness as much as it is about a woman’s worldly desires beyond the household stuff. One can label it feminism, sure, but I would want to resist the presence (explicit or implied) of quotation marks around it. The mere presence of Ms. Swinton, who is too specific to be a stereotype, discourages any such intention. So yeah, when Kevin squirts colored-elephants all over the rare maps in “her room”, it really boils your blood. The skillful framing of our frustration through Ms. Farmiga’s in Orphan sure comes to mind. And Mildred’s. So yeah, when Mr. Gonzalez suggests that the film is a snide art-house take on The Omen, I begin to question where the boundaries of “art-house” end and mainstream Hollywood fare begin. I mean, the modern horror film has been known to adopt mainly medium shots and close-ups and shallow focus, and the present tense here contains shots that show only a portion of the action. Such framing, like the close-up of a hand using a brush to wipe the floor, of eyes blinking behind the shades, of fingers taking egg-shells out of the food, is too claustrophobic for comfort. There’s a certain manic energy when we see an act this closely, when it fills our vision, and we probably perceive it an excess. Obvious comparisons to Roman Polanski’s chamber films further serve the point that Ms. Lynne Ramsay is using the tropes from the horror-genre. Everything around Eva, every eye around her, the walls, the confines of her car, everything that the camera manages to frame, every inch of space around her is her own personal chamber. So yeah, I guess “snide” is a little uncalled for, because this film here, much like a film like Mulholland Dr., is what distinguishes horror from scary.
This here is the problem with some of the criticisms being leveled against the film from various quarters, a recurrence of what one might label as award-season bash/backlash, and I pick Mr. Gonzalez’s review only because it at least presents itself as a criticism worthy of being analyzed, and which acts as an example for the assumptions and a reluctance to engage with the image other than in its symbolic form, thereby categorizing it under the same section as that of hack-jobs like Black Swan, films which not only strip their images of everything else, but move ahead with little sense of respect or consideration for the moment, rendering themselves absolutely lifeless.
We need to Talk about Kevin, with its reds and yellows and blues and sauces and jams is not symbolic but expressionistic, and Ms. Ramsay imbues its each moment with such specificity and narrative energy, much like There Will Be Blood that each of them – the literal, the narrative and the symbolic – co-exist within the same frame and support corresponding interpretations. Let me take three examples, each related and building upon the other, and each of them easy targets for the “in-your-face-symbolism” accusation. We begin with the interiors of Eva’s house, the walls and the panes all smeared in red, and when Eva moves out of the house to see the cause, we see red splashed all around. Including the car. The narrative has barely begun so much so that this moment is part of it, and we’ve no idea what’s in store. The way Eva drags herself out of the house suggests she is some sort of crazy wanderer, or lunatic, and that the red has been sprayed by external forces. Who? Naughty children? Some festival? No idea, but its presence is foreboding. We fast forward to a moment where Ms. Ramsay provides for one of those extra-tight close-ups, as Eva is cleaning bits out of her hair, and we not only draw connections to the red sprays and the El Tomatino festival, wondering where the residual bits have come from, we also draw conclusions that Eva’s life is, in a general sense, haywire, and that her perspective of the world around is skewed. The red is residual for guilt of some sort, a symbol for blood, and an indicator of a messy/crazy way of life. And when we find Eva in the aisles of a superstore, hiding from a woman, with cans of tomato soup filling the background, both the symbolic thread and the narrative thread have accumulated to support their own little threads. We’re not merely thinking of those soup cans, but also the woman beyond the frame, and who could walk into it anytime and confront Eva. Within that frame, the soup cans leave no room for any air whatsoever for us, or Eva, to breathe, transforming what is technically medium shot into a super-tight close-up. As I said, the frame is the chamber.
The big question – what does the film have to say about parenting? As much as easy answers are being provided every which where, there’re two specific moments Ms. Ramsay provides us with, which when contrasted with the third would obviously account for those easy ones.
And yet, as much as those moments are synecdochical, presenting a very specific image as shorthand for parenting problems, Ms. Ramsay is shrewd enough to fog this moment with tension and ambiguity. We first hear the sound of a wailing child, and we see Eva holding him. The narrative until here, especially the preceding moment, where she lay in bed in the hospital, in a state of shock more-or-less, considering this abrupt shift in life, and her husband holding her son, impresses us with the notion that Eva isn’t too good with kids, and that she’s holding a time-bomb.
Yet, the kid is crying when the father is holding him in the hospital and his wailing pierces two time-shifts so as to present at least the notion of a demonic child and a helpless inept mother. As with most things in the film, it is a bit of both, and it is this ambiguity that lends the film its structure.
I’m a plausible, and when a film (ca)uses a temporal fragmentation I need a dramatic/thematic justification. It is probably a reflection of my need to find logic, and when I demand a reason from a film, it is more to appease to my narrow view than to analyze/criticize a film, asking of it to shred every bit of gimmickry and exercise subtlety. There’s also the contentious issue of morality, the presence of which greatly relieves me, and I ask myself if the film’s central structure, with its opening moment setting up the big reveal at the end is some sort of money-shot, one of those twist endings horror movies need to have. I want to like the film, and don’t want to feel betrayed by something sensational. There is the big scene at the school, which is merely another event and not the film’s focal point, for Ms. Ramsay conveys to us, through those horrified kids and Eva’s stunned reactions and the slaps and broken eggs, its foreboding presence well in advance. I wonder to what dramatic end the narrative would structure itself thus, and the final moment, where I felt the tension between the mother and the child finally giving away to tenderness, I could not help but recollect the one preceding moment, where the child is sick and the mother is taking care of him, and the father comes in and the child asks him to get the hell out of there. As in a good suspense film, the ending is not what it is about, but what it represents, and how it surprises our assumptions. For all its running time, we feel that Kevin has robbed her of her worldly desires, and that her decision to give birth to a daughter is merely to pad herself from father and son. And because of the fragmented structure, where camera eye movements in the present are mirrored in the camera movement of the past, where both of those places merge together to make one continuous quest for Eva to come to terms with her loss, like that of White Material, we learn layer by layer, up until the final reveal, how Kevin’s killer blow is to wipe out that personal life Eva has accumulated for herself. Until then, it is only the angry eyes of the without that she needs to escape from, and that she is probably safe inside the walls with her guilt as the antagonist. But as she hugs her son and walks the corridor at the end, all those moments inside the walls of her house present a life destroyed from within. Where does Eva go, other than to be caught up between both? Could she run to France, or another country? The early parts suggest her financial life is a mess. But more importantly, she probably cannot leave her kid, that they share a unique form of affection, and that they are the only ones closest to each other. This is the sort of unresolved stuff horror movies are made of.