Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Two Faces of Love Part A: We Need to Talk About Kevin

Lynne Ramsay knows cinema. She is expert in the use of sound and image to save pages of words.

Here's an example. We've already seen and heard how infant Kevin seems capable only of constant short screams. Tilda Swinton uses all her skill to convey a grinding restraint as she remembers she is holding a baby rather than a faulty ipod that she can throw to the floor and crush under her heel. At an early point in Kevin we see her standing outside as a jackhammer's din clogs the speakers. A passer by, just a blur in the glare behind her, gives her a look and moves on. Cut to a wide shot. She has paused with the pram that holds the constantly screaming baby at a place where he cannot be heard. The sound is monstrous but it's better than what she'd hear if it were silent. Swinton's eyes are closed and her expression is one of stolen bliss. This is beyond morality, it is animal, pure.

Here's another moment. It's the post atrocity world in which she is punished by her community for the mass sin of her son. She's driving trhough the streets of her smalltown part of the city. It's Halloween and the neighbourhood is out in costume. Ordinary citizens in monster masks taunt her at every crossing. Change the context and this would be charming. But Kevin, as he says so memorably in the trailer, IS the context. The interior of the car is soaked in the film's colour in chief: blood red.  Buddy Holly's fragile, tinkling love chirp Every Day governs the soundtrack. Everyday, she gets this. She gets it in the sense that she receives it and that she understands it. Every bloody day.

Both of these moments are from the virtuoso first 30 minutes of this film. It would be counterproductive to list all the remarkably strong and strongly cinematic pieces of this jigsaw puzzle film: the first half hour contains nothing but virtuosity and you should go and see it for yourself anyway. There is no moment of tokenistic levity or warmth in this developing picture of the chasmic lack of love between mother and son. Kevin does need talking about. He's not right. But that's exactly what never happens to any useful extent. That's the central irony. Kevin is falling through the cracks of family, medicine, society, and what have you got? My Melbourne resident readers might be reminded of multiple murderer Peter Dupas.

But here's the problem. After that first half hour this film becomes a repeating slide show of the start with no significant development until crucial pieces of the jigsaw are provided. There is no surprise to them nor any further depth in Swinton's response and by the time the final line should be delivered to crush it's just more of the same. The hour and a half following that dazzling introduction is comprised of repetition with measured doses of unsurprising extra detail. Yet it doesn't have the momentum of a non narrative essay like Jean Luc Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her. This overall flatness of exposititon cannot add up to any character study. there are the trappings of drama but this is not a three act story.

Perhaps this is a symptom of the always difficult translation from page to screen. There are two comparatively minor acts of violence that the film covers with ellipses. Even the pivotal action falls short of visible action. A novelist would not scruple to provide detail. I haven't read the novel but tried to last year when I was lent a copy. I found its style indigestibly affected and couldn't get past the first unrealistically proportioned monolith of a letter (the novel is a series of letters) before my friend let me off the hook by taking it back and offering something readable. Kevin is a prize-winning, bestselling novel. The bad bits must really be good. They aren't in the film. They are perfunctory, never quite rising above placeholder status.

We never fear Kevin. He grows up and continues to be what he started being. If we are meant to be finding a place either side of the nature/nurture debate then it fails again. I found it too difficult to care either way. I remember thinking: get to the big bad bit and have done with it. It cruises over the big bad bit in the hope that you'll agree that the real one lies in the final line of dialogue. Of that, I thought, oh ok.

The early peaking of this film prevents any of its constituent parts from forming anything better than reiteration. When one of those constituents is an expert performance from Tilda Swinton, I have to ask: couldn't we have just sampled Kevin? Talking about him gets us nowhere.

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