Twang

ARROWS OF UNDESIRE

Fiona had to drag me to see WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN due to my phobia about Scottish cinema. I know this is an American-set story with some British money involved, but the director is Lynn Ramsay, wunderkind of Scottish miserablism, a genre I never had any sympathy with. All through my early years trying to find some entry point into filmmaking, the movies that got backing seemed impossibly glum and unappealing — it was only after I scored a success with my short CRY FOR BOBO that I realized the movie’s subtext was pure autobiography: a character trapped in a world that demands earnest gloom when all he can offer is silliness.

That said, in certain ways Ramsay was a ray of cinematic sunlight, from her own early shorts to her first feature, RATCATCHER. Although she deployed the working-class settings of social realism, her films occasionally departed from the old songbook, notably when a mouse is carried to the lunar surface by balloon in RATCATCHER. And, as a former stills photographer, Ramsay trusts the image, and can serve up strikingly beautiful shots, some of which look like, as she once put it, “the photos you wish you could take,” while others transcend the striking frame to get into the poetry of movement. And added to this is some striking sound design, pointing to a very different artistic ambition from the social realist Ken Loach school (Loach can never do anything interesting with music or sound because he’s committed to an observational style — Ramsay’s weird mix of subjective and omniscient narration allows her to get into quite psychedelic soundscapes).

On the minus side, I still find Ramsay’s devotion to misery offputting, and when the misery isn’t entirely convincing I really resent it. If something isn’t enjoyable to watch, it better have some clear connection to life, some truth. I’m talking about the end of RATCATCHER here, while trying not to “spoil” it. Also, Ramsay’s tendency to lift shots from Tarkovsky annoyed me — I don’t object to filmmakers pilfering, but I do feel anybody lifting a shot from elsewhere is obliged to transform it, either by redesigning/improving it, or at least slotting it into a totally different context so the stolen moment is forced to function differently. DePalma’s repurposing of Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence in THE UNTOUCHABLES is bold plagiarism, but at least there’s creativity in the idea of transforming propaganda into action cinema. Swiping art cinema to make art cinema is too easy: Ramsay’s borrowings from MIRROR, like Peter Mullan’s from THREE COLOURS BLUE in THE MAGDALEN SISTERS, strike me as lazy and unimaginative. When the most striking cinematic effect in your film is stolen wholesale from an easily available source in the same genre you aspire to, that’s a real condemnation of your ambition and imagination.

THE UPSIDE OF MISERY

Happily, KEVIN seems devoid of undigested borrowings — the sound design is trippy and provokes a persistent feeling of dread. Seamus McGarvey’s photography is outstandingly beautiful: long sequences simply follow one stunningly evocative image with another, making strong choices as to focus and framing — visually beautiful in a way that’s neither aimlessly decorative nor obviously illustrative. The movie’s really curious about images. It’s very obvious that this is a film made with an outsider’s eye for Americana, which sometimes leans towards slightly lazy caricature but also provides a strong, individual viewpoint at all times. Interestingly, it’s not the viewpoint of anybody in the film (the protagonists are all native Americans, though the central character is played by fellow Scot Tilda Swinton), so it adds a sense of distance: perhaps the characters are to some extent observing their lives from the outside.

The performances are uniformly strong, with Swinton utterly committed and the kids typically compelling — Ramsay gets results by auditioning massive numbers of kids, anywhere she can find them, and then working VERY hard with them. Ezra Miller is quite a discovery — with those looks and that talent, he’ll go far. The weakest link is probably John C Reilly, just because he has a really impossible role and probably hasn’t received the same support as his co-stars — as the willfully blind father of a dangerous problem child he has to keep his blinkers on in the face of truly inescapable evidence of his son’s disturbing tendencies, and the direction and screenplay are more concerned with painting those tendencies in the most unsettling hues than they are with addressing the plausibility of such behaviour being ignored.

Here’s where you have to distrust me a little, because whenever there’s a film by a Scottish filmmaker (and it’s not made by one of my friends) I can get a bit judgmental — I become the cliché of the bitter film critic whose sore because he can’t do it himself. My problems with this film, which may be trumped up from within, are —

THINGS I READ OFF THE SCREEN IN “WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN”

When Tilda backs into a wall of goods in a supermarket, I guess they could’ve been cute and had Tilda’s Rice, but instead they have tins of tomato soup, referencing both Warhol and the film’s RED theme — blood and red paint and tomatoes are a constant motif. The soup is called Ma Ramsay’s Tomato Soup — a cute in-joke and one that speaks of a certain affection from crew to filmmaker, which can only be good. If you spot it, it slightly deflates the drama of the scene, but it’s sweet.

But at the High School where — and this could be a slight spoiler if you don’t want to know ANYTHING, and the film holds this info back a fair while — Kevin runs amok on a killing spree with a bow and arrows, we get inspirational posters… I suspect such posters DO exist in US schools, but they all say heavily ironic things here like “Aim and Achieve.” I mean, HEAVILY ironic.

This implies that either the film isn’t taking its central massacre seriously — which would be unforgivable only because it takes Tilda’s suffering seriously and turns the other grieving parents into monsters — or it’s trying to imply that Kevin’s nihilistic outburst is a response to something in American culture, which doesn’t work because there’s no follow-through on the thought.

HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL

I find this kind of ugly, because it’s crude, and it seems like a sick joke. How careful do I require a filmmaker to be in tackling high school massacres? Well, I had no problem with anything in Van Sant’s ELEPHANT — I found the portrayal of the killers to be the least successful or convincing aspect of the movie, but it wasn’t a moral objection and I think the film’s brilliant. And I enjoy all kinds of violent films from time to time, and only really get offended by stuff like FUNNY GAMES that tries to teach me that I shouldn’t.

But the slomo shots of Miller, stripped to the waist, posing with his bow, struck a bum note. Very romantic images. There’s a real feeling of dread created in the movie, but I don’t know why he had to look so sexy there. And arguably Miller’s last scene, facing the consequences of his actions, is intended to strip away that glamour, but if I were a young person on the edge, I know which images would have greater resonance for me. And I have to wonder, am I just jealous of Lynn Ramsay, because “imitable behaviour” is not a concern I’ve raised with any other movie in the years I’ve run Shadowplay

My final problem, hopefully, is in the adaptation of the book — Swinton’s career as travel writer is dropped into a couple of places, and allows for a striking opening sequence (even the film’s evocation of joy comes with slomo dread and crimson splatter), but we’re really allowed to forget about it until it crashes back into the story at odd places. And other plot lacunae are even more striking — WHY is she regarded with loathing by her community after Kevin’s rampage? Because it’s obvious that she’s as much a victim as anybody else. You might think that, as mother of the killer, she’d be regarded with suspicion, but when you see the film this doesn’t work at all, given the particular circumstances. I *guess* maybe the fact that she’s stood by her son, kind of, is the clue to this, but it’s heavily underplayed if so. And I think if you’re going to make a film as bleak as this you need to make it airtight because an audience trapped in its fictive hell is going to look for escape routes with increasing desperation… In a way, that’s how I see the film’s mission: to swathe the viewer in a really despairing narrative and leave no hope of getting out unhurt…

Am I griping because I got dragged to see it, or because I’m a frustrated Scottish director? I flag those possibilities up. Whatever, this is a striking movie, well worth seeing, a “tough watch” intentionally, and my love of entertainment isn’t so overwhelming that I can’t appreciate the value of that sometimes. But do we need more pain?

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19 Responses to “Twang”

  1. Haven’t yet seen it, and a comment by a friend on Twitter to the effect that “What I took away from WNTTAK was something something RED something” rang my arthouse pretension warning bell. It’s intriguing that the most rounded and mysterious portrayal of a high school shooter I can think of is in the currently on-air US genre series American Horror Story, which I’m mildly obsessed with right now. Intriguing because the show is made by the producers of, and quite clearly the dark flipside to, the outlandishly successful Glee.

  2. Wow.

    There’s nothing pretentious about using red in particular ways — and I think there should be a moratorium on the P word anyway. The only trouble is it’s rather obvious, which I think is what your friend meant. Although here red stands for two completely different emotions, it seems. I’m not sure if that’s productive ambiguity or just muddle, but it masks the obviousness a little.

  3. “Do we need more pain?” Were he here today Pier Paolo Pasolini would say “Yes!”

    What’s striking here is we’re all prepared to deal with a Columbine scenario but are thrown byt the fact that the psycho-perp uses a bow and arrow instead of a high-powered rifle.

    I dsagree about John C. Reilly. He’s quite a cinematic resource. His performance here stands in contrast to the ones he’s given in Chicago and most recently Carnage.

    Tilda is impeccable as always. I especially love the scne where the Mormons come to her house and ask if she knows where she’s going to be in the afterlife to which she instantaneously repleis “Yes, I’m going straight to hell” — and shuts the door on them.

  4. Oh, I like Reilly in general — a strong, sympathetic dramatic actor, and a lovely comic one. I just think his character’s stance here is unplayable given what we see onscreen: he couldn’t be that blind with The Bad Seed running around the house.

    Enjoyed the Mormons too. When Jehovah’s Witnesses called on my mum and I was a baby, they said “Everything is planned.” She nodded at me and said “Well HE wasn’t.”

  5. Have you seen The Bad Seed lately? Eveyln Varden is as blind as they come.

    As blind as she was to Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter

    In Kevin Reilley keeps minimizing things from the start. He makes little of the kid’s grotesque refusal to be toilet-trained, and
    brushes every borderline-psycho thing he does as mere childish acting-up. Plus he consistently praises the little creep’s archery skill. He’s setting himsefl up to be murdered.

    Tilda’s mother character has constant give-and-take with Kevin. But this too is enabling. He enjoys her objecitng to his actions. That’s because he knows as effort will be made to send him to the psycho ward where he belongs.

  6. Damn, I wanted to link to the Jehovah’s Witnesses scene in Black Books (the sitcom) but it’s not on YouTube.

    Various parties have pointed out that today a kid like Kevin would be in therapy, on ritalin, etc, rather than swept under the carpet, but I think it’s OK to tell an atypical story rather than a sign of the times one. But there’s a throwaway reference to him being on Prozac which I didn’t understand.

  7. Proscribing drugs is one thing. Whether the kids take ot or not is another. Kevin obviously wasn’t taking his Prozac — and whatever therapy he was getting was piss poor.

  8. I thought the film was brave in leaving out a lot of things that were in the book and couldn’t be conveyed through image and sound design, rather than trying to crowbar in exposition – but I did wonder what an audience that hadn’t read the book would make of it.

    In the book, Kevin is clever enough to make his own use of all the social safeguards for disturbed youth – he puts on a wonderful performance of bashful trauma to get an innocent teacher fired for sexually harassing him, for instance. He goes on Prozac – possibly after the “harassment” incident? – shortly before his rampage, because the drug will be an extenuating circumstance for his trial and sentencing. Similarly, he acts just a few days before the birthday that would make him liable to be tried as an adult.

  9. I used to be a target of every single cult/religion who had an office around here, even Lutherans would try to bribe me into attending. All except Mormons. I don’t know why, but I scare Mormons away so they won’t even talk to me. JWs not so much, they used to come to my house every Saturday morning like clockwork until I started wearing less and less clothing each time I answered the door. Now, years later, the JW neighbor who would usually find me easy pickings doesn’t bother even handing me a Watchtower.

    You don’t want to know what I did to get rid of the Scientologist women who would follow me around malls, bowling alleys, college campuses, etc.

  10. The birthday thing is clear in the film, the Prozac isn’t — it’s a hanging remainder of something cut, and the smart thing would have been to cut the reference, because it’s just confusing. Ramsay on the one hand is good at throwing out things that don’t work for her, on the other hand she’s not a brilliant script editor.

    In Morvern Callar she cast an English girl, Samantha Morton, and dissuaded her from doing a Scottish accent, even though it’s crucial in the book that this character has never been anywhere. And in the film it doesn’t really matter, because sound and image are more important than plot nuance.

  11. When I got laid off, I had an unimaginable amount of stuff from my job as a print designer at an ad agency. Some nearby Mormons carried it for me about a half mile to my apartment. I promptly shut the door on them right before their sales pitch. It’s preemptive revenge for their baptism once I expire…..

  12. Oh dear… well, I guess they were angling to make a convert rather than acting out of the goodness of their hearts.

  13. It’s not always easy to tell. Mormons have a reputation roundabouts for being disconcertingly good neighbors. It’s a matter of whether you view Ned Flanders through Marge’s eyes or Homer’s.

  14. The Simpsons creators seem to portray Ned as if Marge was right and yet treat him as if Homer was right…

  15. I thought you were going to end with ‘But do we need more paint?
    The answer is no.
    I cannot watch another moment of symbolic paint scrubbing.
    And no more strawberry jam either.

  16. It was interesting to see someone attempt a Nick Ray type colour symbolist approach, but I think Ramsay’s best moments aren’t usually intellectually worked out like that, they arrive through her photographic mind’s eye.

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