The film, ‘We need to talk about Kevin’, has gotten some great reviews – I’d heard the buzz, so when my buddy John told me about free tickets to a preview here in Sydney, I readily agreed. Tilda Swinton is an amazing actor, and I find her completely compelling on-screen.
I wasn’t disappointed — in her. But in the film, yes. Everyone will know the story before seeing the film, whether from the book it was based on, a film review, or a trailer. The focus of the movie in on the mother of a son who commits one of those Columbine-style massacres in his high school. The narrative is not traditional: it flashes forwards and back, but mainly, it doesn’t exist. It’s a film mostly of images and snapshots of situations that build on each other.
The images are beautiful, and most of the images are of Tilda Swinton’s face, which is amazing – her beauty seems completely original; a set of plain features that are in perfect relation to each other that produce a sort of alchemical reaction. But Swinton’s presence, beauty and acting aren’t enough to carry the film.
There’s nothing to it. A kid is born, entirely lacking in empathy. The father is cheery and doesn’t see much wrong. The mother battles year after year with her son, and looks tired and drawn and unhappy. As media consumers, we’ve read all about high school mass murderers. So, what’s new here? Is there anything surprising, or that adds to what we know? That’s what I was waiting for, along with some development in characters. The father, played by John Reilly, has a lightness, which is a good contrast to the darkness around him. But nothing changes in him from start to end. There’s no surprise in the development of the son. He starts nasty, and ends nasty. And considering the focus of the film is on Eva, the mother: nothing happens there either. She is frustrated, she tries at times, she is tired and hurt. As a portrayal of grief and depression, she’s compelling to watch. As a character, she’s one-note.
Worst of all are the simplistic repetitions of themes. Eva in a sea of tomatoes. Eva trying to get the red paint off of the front of her house (why not paint it over?). Red jelly on a sandwich. Everywhere, blood and red squishy images (out, out, damn spot), unless it’s a clumsy equation of a lychee fruit with an eyeball. C’mon, are we in film school? Here’s a stereotype of a kid who turns into a mass murderer: he’s collects computer viruses, is interested in weapons, kills family pets and says nasty things. Here’s what a depressed mother looks like: she drinks red wine, often, and also takes pills to dull the pain.
And that’s what I did, after the film, with John. Drink wine to dull the pain of a terrible movie with some good acting and interesting images. The last word goes to him: “Half an hour of Dexter had more to it than this film.”
Rarely do books that brilliant make good cinema. I wouldn’t see it for that reason. Shriver’s genius as an author is the meticulous analysis of a social phenomenon through the motion of a single induvidual’s story. (This is not just in ‘Kevin’ but other works too, especially ‘So much for that’.) It would have to be an astounding film to replicate that quality.
I read elsewhere that part of what made Shriver’s book interesting was the question of reliability of the author – which didn’t translate at all in the film, making the story much less interesting.
I was going to ask you if you had read the book. A very important feature of the book is the unreliable narrator – is Kevin really born without empathy? Or is the narrator projecting her own considerable issues onto her understanding of her son? I haven’t seen the movie, but imagine that unless it captured that dimension, the story would be pretty pedestrian.
Aha. So, it’s true. No, I didn’t read the book. I guess the filmmakers tried to swap the unreliable narrator question with strong imagery and Tilda’s acting… but not enough for me. I think fans of the book will find it interesting, just to see what’s been done to it!