In retrospect, the decision by the Jury de Robert De Niro to award the Palme D’Or to Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” looks to be an increasingly America-centric and thoughtless one. That isn’t to say that Malick’s film is bad, and unworthy of the honour: quite the opposite in fact, yet there are two provisos I would attach to that statement. Firstly, one cannot deny the fact that De Niro and Malick emerged during, and are in different ways central to, the greatest period of American filmmaking. Though they never worked together, in 1973 Malick directed “Badlands” and De Niro starred in “Mean Streets:” breakthrough work in both cases, and it is natural to assume an unspoken sense of kinship which may possibly have biased the latter’s decision when it came to a particularly difficult prize-giving moment. Densely beautiful and at times transcendent as it may be, the film is an enigmatic and problematic beast which, whilst more ambitious in its scope and intentions than the other competing films, is not ultimately as accomplished and impressive a piece of work as the other entrants I have seen. The film deserves the prize in its own right, but surely not when considered alongside the surreal gaudiness and creepiness of Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In,” or the visceral heart-pounding stylish viciousness of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive,” or the sheer joie de cinema of “The Artist,” which I’ll save from commenting upon until its general release.
A similar feeling of injustice was present as I watched Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need To Talk About Kevin.” Is it that Ramsay is so highly regarded, in a visually beautiful and mysteriously absent way not unlike Malick himself, and her ability to embrace the darkest of subject matters that has allowed festival judges to praise the film yet not feel obliged to physically reward it? Or that Tilda Swinton is so reliably intense and magnificent in her acting that to continue to be so vociferously admiring of it is to mistake well-earned regard with surprise? In any case, the ferocious quality of the film to my mind surpasses all buzz and prestige the film may have gathered during its festival run, and the piece stands as surely one of the year’s finest films.
What is immediately startling about the film is that fact that it succeeds at being more than the sum of its individually exquisite parts. As one would expect of someone with highly developed skills and a passionate background in photography, Ramsay handles the visual aesthetic of the piece with stark, austere beauty, maintaining a sublimely executed evocation of the cold, alien world of a privileged American suburban idyll which offers happiness and contentment to none who occupy it, occasionally overwhelming the mooted, colourless palette with vibrant flashes of expressionistic colour. Expressionistic is perhaps the best word to describe how Ramsay controls the bleak oppression and severe disturbing darkness of the film; exploding linear narrative to tell a story which unfolds in scenes like the fragmented, deeply ingrained memories which intrude into Swinton’s damaged psyche to prolong her living purgatory; and employing deeply heavy-handed metaphors to enhance the dreamlike, or should that be nightmarish, heightening of the mother’s post-massacre trauma and the deliberately overt tell-tale signs she ought to have noticed in the build-up to it. The hyperbolic profusion of the colour red, whether it be blood, paint, tomatoes or light, floods the film with an omnipresent sense of the rage and bloodlust which fuels the unfathomable act of violence around which the film hinges, and the inevitability of this psychotic catharsis is hidden in plain sight, with targets reflected in Kevin’s eyes and bitterly ironic slogans of empowerment outside the gym hall evidence which should have been spotted long before the tragedy occurs. The film’s screenplay, and indeed its source novel, is served profoundly well by Ramsay’s ability to suggest through visual means the mother’s interiority, something often effectively achieved in novels which is lost in translation when adapted to film. The deglamourisation of Swinton is not a ruse to detract from her imperious other-worldly screen presence, but to involve the audience in the intimate mundanity of her daily existence, so that we can understand more closely how she is affected when retrospectively illuminating memories and victims of her son’s monstrosity intrude upon her life. Ramsay’s use of music creates a discomfiting juxtaposition between the lightness and carefree joy of song and the cruelty it often underpins, most memorably in the forms of a spunky pop song played over a terrifying street gauntlet on Halloween night, and Wham’s “Last Christmas” scoring an act of verbal abuse at an office party. The performances of the three lead actors are magnificent. Ezra Miller creates a charismatic yet demonic vacuum at the centre of all his scenes, almost inhumanly sucking the soul, energy and happiness from his surroundings; John C Reilly gives a performance boasting wonderful duality, a tightrope walk between being a genial family man and woefully stupid, bungling idiot oblivious to the true make-up of his family; and Tilda Swinton is operating on so many levels of nuance, verisimilitude and fearless emotion that she, as usual, almost defeats words.
Swinton and Ramsay, and Miller, pull together most dramatically and profoundly all the various fantastic elements at work in the film to pose a set of moral and humanistic questions which go troublingly far beyond the typical nature versus nurture debate. It is clear to the audience that Kevin is unfortunately born as a demon child not unlike Damian from “The Omen,” yet the apparently clear waters are muddied by the neglect and cruel selfishness Swinton bears towards her child which she spends his entire life, up until his monstrous crime, struggling to suppress and reconcile. The mother places her child next to a pneumatic drill to drown out the sound of his crying, and overtly screams at the baby words to the effect of him having ruined all her life’s ambitions. The child knows, from infancy, that his mother doesn’t love him, and uses the inherent guilt of this to torment the mother and literally get away with murder. On a more fundamental level, Swinton is unable to deliver the most basic of maternal schooling to the child: he never masters “please” and “thank you,” uses strong obscenity (picked up from what source, one wonders, if not in the cloistered presence of his hateful mother?), and only becomes toilet-trained after his arm is broken. The mother is emotionally compromised, guilt-tripped by her own son into excusing behaviour she knows is pre-empting a catastrophic act of evil. Yet what does Kevin gain from this relationship? There is something Oedipal about it, barely suppressed in the scene when caught masturbating he proceeds with greater fury and intent. Kevin is near-mute and quietly resentful around his father, yet the sheer honesty of his maternal enmity creates a bond of ironic closeness between mother and child. Certainly the film’s expressionism and heavy symbolism hints less at Swinton’s reflected guilt of her son’s actions, or indeed the feeling that how she behaved around him turned him into a psychotic: rather, she knew all along what was going to happen, yet stood by and allowed events to play out. She would rather allow innocents to die at her son’s hands than face her culpability in his psychopathy, and he in turn, despite his apparent hatred of her, spares the mother’s life when he murders his father and sister. After the massacre, the point at which most other mothers would denounce their child, Swinton actually learns to love and care for her child, despite having lost her husband and daughter at his hands. In the devastating final scene of the film, Kevin’s psychoses and precocious sense of detached Nietzschean elitism gives way to confusion, fear and perhaps remorse, and his mother holds him in her arms, warmly and with pure maternal instinct. She finally learns to embrace both her son despite his evil, and the physicalisation of the evil within herself, perhaps within all of us.
From James Cagney’s overtly oedipal gangster in “White Heat,” to Frank Booth’s whines of “Baby wants to fuck” to Isabella Rossellini’s mother/whore substitute in “Blue Velvet,” there is a rich tradition in cinema of the psychotic driven to his most terrible acts by maternal obsession. Alfred Hitchcock most famously mined this territory in “Psycho,” which is perhaps most revolutionary and disturbing not stylistically but thematically, in the way we are fooled into sympathizing with a psychopath so heavily driven by his mother that he assumes her identity to keep her ostracized madness alive. What is scary and profound about “We Need To Talk About Kevin” is that Swinton’s mother is not fooled into identification with her child’s actions: she is in fact more detached than most from him in the first place, and recognizing the evil within him, and the role she may have played in breeding it, hates Kevin. Yet a mother’s love is after everything stronger than the hate which triggers familial and scholastic massacre, and in an act of unprecedented, partially messianic and partially satanic, compassion the mutual evil of mother and son is united in their final embrace. Her evil was less obvious and physical than his, a hidden selfishness which caused a revulsion of her own son, yet both are finally expressed as the most hideous yet strangely moving form of love.