22 February 2012

Filmbook: "We Need To Talk About Kevin" (2011)

Lionel Shriver's breakout novel WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is a horrifying, riveting piece of fiction. I barely put it down while I was reading it like a thriller, even though its major traumatic event has already taken place: A teenager named Kevin Khatchadourian has committed a Columbine-style killing at his high school, has been convicted and is about to be sent to an adult prison to serve out his time. His mother, Eva, from whose perspective the book is written, still lives in the same town where the killing took place, eking out a living (but hardly a life) as a travel agent after losing her business and the family home to legal bills. In letters to her husband Franklin that she believes will never get to him, Eva processes Kevin's crime and other events from his childhood.

The genius of this book is the high level of ambiguity with which it operates regarding the causes of Kevin's behavior. When I went to see Lynne Ramsay's adaptation of the book (which has been kicking around unfunded for several years now, but finally produced last year), a fellow audience member described it as "scarier than a zombie movie or a disaster movie," because those take place in a heightened reality separate from our own. Because Eva doesn't know why her son turned out the way he did -- because there may not be one empirical answer to the question of "Why?" -- it could happen to any parent.

This movie isn't perfect but I'm devoting an entire entry to it because I feel like it got short shrift in this awards season, and it may be because of the delay. School shootings, in our collective imagination, have been taking a back seat to terrorist attacks for a while, and with them went the discussions of violent video games and the indicating powers of when your teenage son starts wearing a trench coat. But Shriver's book talks about the people to whom mercy is customarily not extended and led me to question (as I'm sure Ramsay intended) how we decide who is "at fault" and who is worthy of grief in this situation. Has Eva not lost a son, in a way? She lives with the consequences of his actions and with the bullying (no better word) of other people in town who feel that her presence alone is offensive to them.

In addition, even before Kevin's violent act, Eva and Franklin's marriage was coming apart in slow motion (something explored with more depth in the book, but still present in the movie). Unprepared for Franklin's commitment to the family "appearance" and the switch from full-time work to full-time parenting, Eva shows clear signs of post-partum depression -- there's a marvelous scene in the movie in which she stands near a jackhammer so it will drown out baby Kevin's constant crying -- and lacks the support for her to get help. Seeing her as a "career-minded" woman (as one unfortunate review described her) who is a "bad mother" is a reductive conclusion. Ramsay's film brings a nuance to those feelings to the screen with the help of Tilda Swinton, as Eva, whose performance harnesses her natural perception of iciness but also her effortlessness. (The Best Actress Oscar category is such a mess this year, maybe she should have been included.)

In an interview with The Guardian that I read after seeing "We Need To Talk About Kevin," Shriver says her version of the movie would have been extremely talky because she is "enamored" of the dialogue she wrote. It's true, this is not a talky movie, but what is lost with, say, not having a voiceover is gained in composition and those marvelous images that course through it. Ramsey especially plays with the color red, which I didn't think was overkill (although some people I know who have also seen this movie thought it was). Shriver's novel is riveting, but the movie challenges in a different way: It even more strongly forces us to identify with Eva and the situation she finds herself in, because you spend so much time with her.

I came out of this movie thinking and continued to think about it for a long time after. I don't know that I would be able to watch it again.

Filmbook verdict: Read the book, then see the movie.

Here are some alternate titles I came up with: 
  • "We Need To Talk About Getting Kevin Some Therapy" 
  • "We Should Have Talked About Kevin A Long Time Ago"
  • "We Tried To Talk About Kevin, But Weren't Listening To Each Other" 
  • "A Professional Needs To Talk To Kevin" 
  • "Kevin Has An Uncanny Sense For When We Are Talking About Him"
  • "Look Who's Talking About Kevin" 
  • "It's Too Late For Us To Talk About Kevin"

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