Thursday, 3 November 2011

FILM REVIEW: We Need To Talk About Kevin

Another late review – sorry! Can you tell I’m trying to get everything up to date before the madness of the Leeds Film Festival begins?

Another film I’ve been looking forward to for ages – more so because I’ve read the book by Lionel Shriver, and met Lionel Shriver so she could sign it (and dying from a chest infection in the process). I couldn’t wait to see a film version of it, see how they would put such a difficult and introspective story onto the big screen. And the trailer is amazing – probably my favourite of the year. I love how it only gives fractions away, the underlying horror behind it, the abrupt ending. How can you not get that song stuck in your head?!

I was genuinely surprised in the build up to the film’s release, the majority of people who had no idea what happens in the film, what “event” is acted out by Kevin. The novel was such a book club favourite when it came out, with popular and critical success. It came to me by word of mouth, and the main reason for reading it was because of ‘the event’. I thought everybody knew! But – a lot of time has passed, and a whole generation will come to this film not knowing anything. Film reviews have been very careful not to give anything away, but I’m afraid, I will want to discuss it openly, so if you don’t know what happens at the end – and don’t want to know – then go watch it (why you haven’t already is beyond me) and then come back for a gander.

The film starts as in the book: with Eva (Tilda Swinton), after ‘the event’ has happened. In the book, she tells her story through a series of letters to her husband; here, it is told through flashbacks which are a little hazy and hard to navigate at first, and it does help to have that background knowledge of the story already in place, but you soon settle into the flow. It’s been such a long time since I read the book (5 years?) that some details had left my head entirely – so I’m a bit of a loss to work out how much from the aftermath is taken from Lionel Shriver’s words or created for the screen by director Lynne Ramsay. But it’s clear Eva is being tormented by her neighbours and random passers by for something which has happened in her past, something which we know involved her son Kevin (Ezra Miller), as she visits him at the local juvenile centre. Her house is splashed with red paint, she is assaulted in the street, she is insulted at work, all of her 12 eggs are smashed in their carton whilst she shops at the supermarket (a heinous crime, I know you’ll agree. In fact the egg incident whilst offending all my beliefs – eggs are the best thing ever – was also the most disturbing to me: that an angry neighbour could be so precisely vindictive). The use of colour in this film – particularly red – is extraordinarily powerful. It represents happiness (a young carefree Eva crowd surfing in a tomato throwing melee), hatred (the red paint vandalism) and death – the blood which will cover ‘the event’ Eva has to live with for the rest of her life.

We see Eva, happy, in love with husband Franklin (John C Reilly) and pregnant with her first child. But she seems wary and hesitant from the very beginning, unable to rejoice in the glows of impending motherhood. Kevin, when he’s born, is a screaming monster and Eva is unable to control him, seeking solace in roadworks and snapping at him: “mummy was a lot happier before you were born”. Just aptly, Kevin is gentle and calm with his father, who adores him and is unhappy his wife is not bonding with their child. A move out of the city into a bigger house in the suburbs frustrates Eva even more, and as she stays at home to look after toddler Kevin it’s clear things are not quite right. He is unresponsive to his mother, worrying her enough to take him to the doctors where he’s diagnosed as “fine”. After she devotes all of her time to decorating her study, Kevin runs it with a paint gun, saying he was trying to “make it more special.” He refuses to be potty trained, infuriating Eva so much that she accidentally breaks his arm. She is devastated by this, but Kevin knows this, and works it to his advantage. For someone so young he is coolly and terrifyingly astute and conniving, yet sweetness and light when his father comes home from work. The switch he is able to flip between parents is agonizing to watch: we feel for Eva as we know she is telling the truth, and that her worries about her son are of genuine concern and fear, but Franklin cannot see that and is further saddened by her increasingly hostility towards their “slow, but lovely” boy.

Eva – we feel out of loneliness or revenge – becomes pregnant with a second child. It does not go down well with Franklin or Kevin. Celia is sweet, loving and innocent – completely the opposite of Kevin. It has proved to Eva that she is not pre-disposed to have evil children, or that it is something fundamentally wrong with her as a parent. Despite this she tries to maintain a good relationship with Kevin, who leads her on by playing mini golf with her, or going out for a meal, but then mocks her and ridicules their whole relationship, just so she is aware of who is still in control. Then a series of events take place which will set fate in motion: Celia’s guinea pig goes missing, and Eva finds it in the kitchen sink pipes. Then Celia is rushed to hospital after drinking bleach which was left out on the side, and loses an eye. Eva knows Kevin did those things, and we know Kevin did those things, but Franklin is at a loss as to why his wife hates their son so much she would blame him for the very worst. They start to discuss divorce (there’s a very telling remark from Franklin along the lines of “at least custody will be a no brainer” which is unbelievably hurtful, even to the audience watching). All of this so far has happened through flashback, with current Eva living in a ghostly shell full of pills, alcohol and wanton meals in a hut of a house. We fear the unimaginable is coming and it does – if you’re clueless up to the this point it will hit you like an iron bar in the stomach. Sort of luckily, I knew what was coming, but was still surprised by how much they chose to show.

A few days shy of his 16th birthday, archery expert Kevin (Ezra Miller) goes into school as normal, bike locks the doors closed so no one can get out, and positions himself in the upper reaches of the gymnasium where he starts to pick off students at random with his crossbow. News of the massacre soon fills out into the town, and Eva rushes from her job to the school where parents, police, ambulances, firemen are all trying to get into the locked building. Stretchers are wheeled about with arrows sticking out horrifically from teenage bodies, some dead, some alive. Eva is desperately looking for her son. She finds him when the doors are wedged open and he walks out triumphant with his weapon, smirk on his face. Eva is paralyzed with shock. Kevin is led away by the police, and slowly, Eva returns to her car in a daze and drives home to tell her husband. When she gets home, no-one is there. She wanders from room to room looking for her husband and daughter, and finally finds the back door open. She walks through to the garden – the sprinklers are on for some reason. Franklin and Celia lie face down on the grass, arrows in their backs, long dead. That is the moment which shook me: they show flashes and glimpses of the school massacre, but only from the outside – never from Kevin’s POV. I thought we would see Eva disappear into the garden and the deaths would be inferred to us another way. But no: we see it all. It is brutal, and utterly shocking, even though I knew it was coming. She has lost her whole family, apart from the one person whom she is so afraid of.

Up until this point I thought the film was fantastic. Vivid, uncompromising, raw, but I was worried they wouldn’t be able to convey the very last thing which happens in the book – what has divided so many readers. Eva meets with her son, who is about to be sent off to an adult jail, and comforts him. We see she has already made up a room at home exactly how his bedroom was at the old house for when he is released. She has forgiven him, and she still loves him, despite absolutely everything that has happened. Kevin, always so cocksure of himself and a step ahead of the pack – is being broken by the penal system. Covered in scars and bruises from inmate attacks, visibly shaking at the thought of going somewhere worse, he is asked by his mother why he did what he did. After a long pause he says “I used to think I knew, but now I’m not so sure.” And he clings to his mother. Argh, that moment killed me! Such a brilliant and emotional way to get the complexities of the characters and the ending of the novel across to the film audience. It’s just beautifully done. I thought they wouldn’t be able to do it, but they do it with aplomb.

Tilda Swinton is amazing – one of her most devoted performances to a role, and she is utterly convincing as the woman who has the worst case of prolonged post natal depression one could imagine. She is perfect for this role, and there is something very wrong at the top of the film world if she is not recognised in the upcoming awards season. She is a complete tour de force in this film, though the rest of the cast are equally as dedicated. And special mention to the casting director for this film Billy Hopkins: the three Kevins – toddler, infant and teenager – are brilliantly chosen. Not only do they all look startling like one another, their performances are sinister and calculating to perfection. Especially the younger actors – incredible! Ezra Miller is also a unique and exciting find – anyone who bring pathos to the character of a killer is supremely talented. I can tell he’s an oddball as well – he’ll excel at unconventional roles going forward.

There is so much about this film to admire, I can’t praise it enough. But I must make a point to say how I loved the continual shot of Eva stood against a wall – whether it’s in her destroyed study, against rows of baked bean tins in the supermarket, or the rafters of her house – the allegory of always having her back up against a wall, trapped in this life now Kevin is in it, and is still in it… I just thought that was so clever. This film just defines quality filmmaking. Lynne Ramsay should get plenty of plaudits, too.

There will be so many questions – as with the book – when you finish watching that will stir debate amongst you and your friends/partner/family/colleagues for days. Is she responsible for what he did, as her neighbours – grieving parents of lost children – believe? Is Kevin the way he is because of her (nurture) or was he just born that way (nature)? Why does she forgive him at the end? Can he truly change, is he remorseful for what he did? Does he even understand what he did? And why did he do it – for attention, for revenge, for shock? What really is his relationship with his mother? It will hound you, and torment you, and you will most definitely want to talk about Kevin.

GO AND SEE IT, what are you waiting for! The length of this review alone should tell you We Need To Talk About Kevin is not only one of my favourite (I use the word loosely) films of the year, it’s also one of the best films of the year. That Lionel Shriver, the author, celebrates its interpretation should be more than enough to drive you to the cinema.

FILM REVIEW: Sleeping Beauty

Apologies for the late review for this film – I saw it in the midst of the London Film Festival and whilst it was by no means forgettable, it seems to have fallen through the culturemouse cracks somewhat, so let’s put that right.

I’d been looking forward to Sleeping Beauty for ages, and I was so lucky to have been in London the weekend it was released in the UK otherwise I wouldn’t have seen it (it’s still not come to Leeds). I’m a big fan of the twisted fairytale or anything verging into Angela Carter territory, so as soon as I saw this trailer I knew it was on the delicious side of wrong. Plus I kind of love Emily Browning: she has that devilish beguiling side of her which is so powerful in someone so young, and I don’t care what anyone says, I loved Sucker Punch and was perfectly happy to see her in another exploitation movie – though a bit artier this time. And by the end of the film I would have a whole new respect for her – she pushes brave to a completely new level.

Lucy (Browning) is a University student somewhere in Australia, struggling to pay her tuition fees and rent. She is juggling several jobs including waitressing, medical experiments (the first scene of the film shows her having a tube inserted down her throat into her lungs – I defy you to hold your focus throughout her gagging and not look away), photocopying in an office, and she also spends a lot of her time looking after her alcoholic male friend, bringing him vodka to swill his cornflakes in. Her flatmates hate her as she’s always avoiding her payments and is never around, and communicate their anger to her through notes posted about the house. The only indication of any family is her mother, who rings her up at her office job one day desperate for Lucy’s credit card number which she reels off in superb pretence. It’s obvious her mother is a dependent and an addict of some sort, and so therefore Lucy is on her own in the world, and desperate to be independent and get an education. So she takes up another job offer – silver service in her lingerie for an exclusive club – more like a password protected cult – for elderly men. But this is not the extreme for Lucy. As ‘shifts’ run dry, she begs her employer Clara (Rachael Blake) – a mother figure to the working girls - to give her more work, and accepts the role of a ‘sleeping beauty’. She is taken anonymously to a house in the countryside, where she is drugged and put into a bed. Whilst asleep, Clara arranges for a man to come into the room and he can do whatever he likes to the sleeping girl “without penetration”. Lucy is grateful for the money, but becomes more obsessed with what happens to her whilst she is sedated. She buys a spy camera and plants it in the room before she falls asleep and is able to see the last encounter she has as the sleeping beauty.

There is absolutely no music used in this film – I noticed this about halfway through, when the atmosphere seems to clot and the uneasiness becomes so intense. It heightens the claustrophobia of the film, the hush in the cinema screen I was in was like a thick fog! A completely absorbing watch – whether you’re watching Lucy’s first interview for the job, serving brandy to the elderly gentlemen in her underwear after their meal, or predominantly, watching her sleep and the male ‘guest’ prowl around examining her wondering what on earth they’re going to do. It’s a difficult watch but not impossible – it’s beautifully shot, with the pace the beat of a steady heart and the shocking and bold situations eking an elegance, even if it’s tinged with delinquency.

Emily Browning is so brave. I kept thinking perhaps she was actually sedated through some of those scenes, because how could she keep her composure and her professionalism when they’re dragging her naked across the floor, burning her with cigarettes, treating her like a whore?! For someone so young, she has made some telling choices so early on in her career that will stand her out from the crowd. She is haunting, particularly in the final moments. Apparently Mia Wasikowska had been signed up to this film before she left to do Jane Eyre – uhh, thank God she did! It would have been a completely different film (and I would have been at odds as to whether to watch it or not with her in it).

As with the music, there is also little dialogue in the film, and our idea of Lucy is shaped through her actions and habits. There are a lot of things deliberately left unexplored: who is this alcoholic friend of hers? Who are the people at his funeral, and the young man who reacts so violently to her flippant proposal? Why does she burn the money she earns in one scene when she apparently so badly needs it to pay her way? There has been a lot of interpretation over the ending as well: just before her final stint as the sleeping beauty she goes out with some friends and pops some pills. Clara, before administrating the sleeping drug, asks her if she is clean and healthy and she lies and tells her yes. Did she know the pills would react with the drug, and therefore was she planning to kill herself, and so when Clara wakes her up she screams out of despair that she's still alive? Or, as she planted the spy camera, is it perfectly obvious she didn’t intend to kill herself and her screams are more to do with the man in the bed with her? It’s interesting as I never considered the former, but I’ll bear it in mind on the next watch. I’m also going to keep in mind director Julia Leigh – I can see her at the forefront of some exciting projects in the future.

As a fault, Sleeping Beauty is probably a little bit too remote and detached to properly move the audience – Lucy is not grounded enough as a character, she’s almost ethereal. But it’s uncompromising and achingly engrossing, and will affect you in different ways. A fearless film and one that deserves a watch, though you may have to wait for the DVD now.