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 He leaves behind a note instructing her stay strong and to sell his unpublished novel.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.
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.