CANNES REVIEW: Tilda Swinton, Slow-Burn Horror Save We Need to Talk About Kevin
Yesterday I needed to visit the press office to request a copy of the press-screening schedule. I asked the friendly Cannes staffer at the Palais information desk where I should go. She asked me whether my outlet was "written" or "broadcast," but I couldn't quite understand her French-accented English. When I told her I was with an online outfit, she nodded and said, "Written." Our eyes met. "Hopefully," I said. And we both had a good laugh.
I'm beginning to love this place, and not just because the staffers get my jokes. I was over the moon when I heard that Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin would be shown in competition here at the festival, and I wasn't alone. The Scottish-born Ramsay may not be a star-name filmmaker, but she's already proved herself with two distinctive, perceptively crafted feature films, Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar (2002). Ramsay was, for a time, set to adapt The Lovely Bones, but was taken off the project. (Peter Jackson directed the subsequent mess.) For Ramsay fans, that whole subject is almost too difficult to think about -- it's painful to imagine the movie that might have been, given Ramsay's clear-eyed sensitivity and ingeniousness.
Now, We Need to Talk About Kevin represents her big chance to break through: It was adapted from Lionel Shriver's acclaimed novel, and it stars two actors of note, Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly. I wish I could say the picture is an unequivocal success. The filmmaking is extraordinary; it's the story that gets in the way. Swinton plays the mother of a teenager who goes on a killing spree at his school. In the aftermath, her life falls apart -- and the aftermath is where the story opens. Ramsay cross-cuts gracefully between past and present: We see Swinton living, apparently alone, in a run-down house on an otherwise nice street. She's clearly unwelcome there -- when we first see the house, it's been splashed with red paint.
Ramsay jostles the narrative backward and forward so we gradually learn how Swinton's life came to be this way. She and her husband (played by Reilly) give birth to a son after an unexpected pregnancy. From the moment he's born, Swinton can't connect with him, no matter how hard she tries. He screams in the crib and in the carriage: Ramsay shows Swinton pushing the latter along a New York City Street, where the infant's infernal squalling drowns out even a pneumatic drill. Swinton has the boy tested for autism; she speaks to him kindly or firmly, depending on the situation; she tries to give him hugs. He responds either with outright contempt or total indifference. Meanwhile, he's all smiles and sun with his dad, who's convinced (for no good reason) that the kid's ill humor is all in his mother's head.
One warning signal after another goes unheeded, and by the movie's last third, the pileup of obvious signs is unforgivable. I know there are no easy answers when it comes to this kind of psychotic behavior. But We Need to Talk About Kevin is a little too facile in the way it sets up the horrific climax: Just one look at this kid and you know he's trouble, yet no one besides mom can see it. (He's played, in his teenage incarnation, by Ezra Miller, who's spookily serene.) I nearly groaned when dear old pops bestowed a shiny, brand-new archer's bow upon his son, without even the standard dad-style warning of, "Here you go, kid -- don't put anyone's eye out."
What does work in We Need to Talk About Kevin is the slow-burning, slow-building mother-and-son horror story. The picture is like a nightmare inversion of Mildred Pierce: This mother doesn't adore her son, and she overcompensates for her lack of feeling by trying harder to win him over. He makes it very tough: As a toddler refusing to be toilet-trained, he glares at her defiantly as he's soiling a freshly changed diaper. When she tries to coax him into saying "mommy," he glares at her, Damian-like, and says, "NO!" If I had been working as a film critic in 1968, I would have warned pregnant women against seeing Rosemary's Baby. I'd say the same thing about We Need to Talk About Kevin: You don't know what you might be getting when your little bundle finally arrives, and it's probably better not to think about it in advance.
The mother-son relationship here is certainly compelling. Swinton is terrific -- this is one of her less mannered performances. Her emotional nakedness, her desire to do the right thing by her son even as he saps her dry, are believable every minute. And the more I think about We Need to Talk About Kevin, the more I'm glad that Ramsay was the director who made it. Instead of trying to do a soft-shoe around the hallowed bond between mothers and sons, Ramsay treads fearlessly into some scary, unspoken territory. When Swinton comes face-to-face with that defiant toddler, it's clear who has the upper hand, and it's not because she hasn't read all the parenting books. The fact that Swinton is as resolute and efficient an actress as we've got only makes the point more stark. When one of her son's surviving victims -- he's in a wheelchair -- approaches her on the street to ask her how she's doing (no one else from the old neighborhood will even speak to her), she responds to his kindness with near-silent yet boundless gratitude. And Swinton playing a woman in need of kindness is something to behold.