Combustible Celluloid
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With: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell, Rock Duer, Ashley Gerasimovich, Siobhan Fallon, Alex Manette, Kenneth Franklin, Leslie Lyles, Paul Diomede, Michael Campbell, J. Mallory-McCree, Mark Elliot Wilson, James Chen
Written by: Lynne Ramsay, Rory Kinnear, based on a novel by Lionel Shriver
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violence and behavior, some sexuality and language
Running Time: 112
Date: 05/12/2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

2 Stars (out of 4)

The Kid Is All Wrong

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I'm a huge fan of director Lynne Ramsay and have been eagerly waiting almost a decade for her follow up to her first two amazing, unique films: Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar (2002). Thus We Need to Talk About Kevin is probably the biggest disappointment of the year. As a horror film, it's cheap and obvious. As a message movie it's heavy-handed. And as both combined, it's appalling.

Based on a novel by Lionel Shriver, the movie is about a Columbine-like high school massacre. It's told from the point of view of a tormented mom, Eva (Tilda Swinton). Ramsay tells the story out of order, with the post-incident Eva trying to make her way in the world, settling for a crummy job in a strip-mall travel agency -- when she once had a very glamorous job -- and avoiding the angry gazes of parents all over town.

Then we witness the childhood of Kevin (played by three different actors, including Ezra Miller as the coldly calculating teen). Kevin cried a lot, causing his mother to grimace and stare blankly at the walls. Then he refuses to speak or be potty trained, and then eventually he becomes a cunning button-pusher, ordering his parents about and pitching his actions against their reactions. The movie also uses the old staple of the boy pretending to be an angel when his father is around, only tormenting the mother when there are no other witnesses.

He grows up to be skilled with a bow and arrow, and he uses this weapon to take out several of his fellow high school students. Children can be monsters, but not this viciously single-minded, unchanging for so many years in a row. Kevin is a horror movie trope -- ripped from movies like The Bad Seed, Village of the Damned, The Omen, and the recent Orphan -- far too menacing to be even remotely connected with anything real.

And the high school shootings are indeed all-too real, and so it's puzzling why these two opposing forces should be squished together in one off-putting movie. The only thing I can figure is that the entire thing is told from Eva's point of view, and there's nary a shot that isn't witnessed from her point of view; maybe she's an unreliable narrator, and we're only seeing her distorted view of Kevin, rather than a real-life monster? However, if that's the case, then Ramsay's movie is too realistic, with too few clues as to the trustworthiness of her narrative.

The other problem is that, if Kevin's every single move is calculated to drive his mother around the bend, why does he attack high school students, and not something more directly related to her? The answer is because it's a cheap way for the movie to attract attention, drawing comparisons to Columbine, and thereby making it more "important" than a standard horror movie.

Certainly this story could have been told as a horror movie, and it would have been far more effective. But this movie, judging by the clunky suspense-free way it sets up its horrific events, clearly distrusts the horror genre, and the visceral power it has. Ramsay and her co-writer Rory Kinnear have instead decided to pad the horror with social commentary, which both undermines it and draws attention to the fact that it's a weak story, much better told in some of the recent "bad seed"/"evil kid" movies like Orphan. For that matter, the Columbine school-shooting story was better told in Gus Van Sant's Elephant (2003) and in the lesser-known Zero Day (2003). 

The biggest shame of all, however, is that the long-awaited return of Ramsay has been so utterly wasted. Let's hope we don't have to wait another decade for her to make up for this one.

The wonderful Oscilloscope released a two-disc DVD/Blu-ray set, in their famous environmentally friendly cardboard packaging. The Blu-ray disc comes with a half-hour behind-the-scenes featurette, more footage from the tomato fight, interviews with Swinton and original author Shriver, and trailers.
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