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?