Ramsay’s 2002 follow-up, Movern Callar, centers on a young, working-class woman (played by a fearless and fascinating Samantha Morton) who awakens on Christmas morning to find that her aspiring-writer boyfriend has committed suicide. He leaves behind a note instructing her stay strong and to sell his unpublished novel. She does so, but under her own name, kick-starting a trippy, often grim odyssey featuring chopped-up body parts and sexual delirium.
Neither movie is as much of a downer as one might expect; each transcends its particulars via Ramsay’s poetic, visually assured take on the material. (Ramsay, who wrote each screenplay as a loose outline, has a background in photography and has worked as a cinematographer on a number of projects, including her own acclaimed shorts Small Deaths, Kill the Day and Gasman.) Narrative takes a backseat to mood in her immersive cinematic landscapes. The existential explorations of Robert Bresson are a clear influence, as is the emotionally and narratively ambiguous work of Terrence Malick.
Following a nine-year wait largely due to an aborted attempt to adapt Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones — the project’s producers wanted a more conventional take than the one Ramsay was planning after the book became a best seller — the gifted writer/director is back with We Need to Talk About Kevin, another misery-laden mood piece with a protagonist on the edge of oblivion.
Very loosely based on Lionel Shriver’s perversely readable epistolary novel of the same name, the movie tells the story of Eva Katchadourian (Tilda Swinton), an Armenian-American travel writer who has given up her globetrotting lifestyle to have a child with her sweet-natured yet naïve photographer husband (John C. Reilly in an underwritten supporting role).
The resulting offspring, a boy named Kevin, is every parent’s worst nightmare — a disturbed and disturbing child who becomes the bane of his mother’s (and ultimately others’) existence. That existence, as presented in non-linear fashion by Ramsay and her co-writer Rory Stewart Kinnear, is broken into three periods: Kevin as a toddler (Rocky Duer), as a 6- to 8-year-old (Jasper Newell) and as a teenager (Ezra Miller). All three actors bring an effectively creepy, remarkably synchronized presence to Kevin’s remote nature — especially Miller, whose delicate, darkly exotic physicality and quietly sneering persona somehow make the character even more loathsome. Hyper-intelligent and devious in equal measure, Kevin is a bad seed whose major malfunction is at the center of the movie’s classic nature vs. nurture dilemma: Is he bad because of some defect in Eva’s child-rearing skills, or is he evil because he was born that way? It’s a question Ramsay is happy to leave open.
The conundrum is most overtly explored when Eva searches 15-year-old Kevin’s room for clues. She finds a CD-ROM disc with “I Love You” written on it. After inserting it into her laptop, a ménage of pornographic images flash on the screen before it infects her computer with a debilitating virus. When she confronts him about it, asking the point of enacting such a trap, he responds, “That’s the point — there is no point,” which is a sentiment that might also be relevant in a more serious event that haunts the narrative from the get-go.
Swinton, who co-produced and helped Ramsay nurture We Need To Talk About Kevin to the screen, makes for a compelling centerpiece. Her pained, pallid, ever-odd face dominates the proceedings, helping us to feel what it must be like to give birth to such a dastardly being — and be judged by others for doing so. She humanizes a movie that nearly slips into aloof tedium on more than one occasion.
The other saving grace is Ramsay’s skill as a stylist: the impressionistic, non-linear narrative (aided by ace editor Joe Bini); red color palette (via jam, ketchup and paint but, curiously, almost never blood); subtly haunting score (from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood); and rich visuals (courtesy of gifted cinematographer Seamus McGarvey) add tension and atmosphere. Grade: B
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN opens Friday at Esquire Theatre.