Saturday, March 10, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin

The hallucinatory images near the end of Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin include a series of worried parents and siblings standing outside a high school traumatized by a series of killings. In the midst of this horror stands Eva (Tilda Swinton), the mother of the teenage killer. Like so many of the emotions in this film, the trauma is kept distant from us, in a haze of color filters and soft focus. A void of meaninglessness (and of incomprehensible grief and terror, seen but not really felt) replaces understanding. The director Raul Ruiz once opined (I am paraphrasing here) that detachment and distance are tools one can use to understand how it is possible to fall in love with a work of art. But they are only tools, and not the only ones: when detachment and distance are all you have, the work of art keeps you on the outside, at arm's length, and love is either replaced by purely cerebral admiration, or frustration.  We Need to Talk About Kevin, surely, is in part a tough movie to love because of its difficult subject matter. But it's a frustrating rather than admirable one because those very elements that Ramsay seems to be using to draw us closer to Eva's own feelings of detachment and alienation (the pop songs, the hatred the others in her town hold for her, the contempt she holds for her child) only push us farther away. Of course, drawing an audience into the experience of alienation is one of the most difficult tasks any director can pose for herself; by their very definition such moments are inaccessible. But it is no help that the director, authorially intervening a little too much, herself pushes us away. In the scene of Kevin speaking, on a videotape, about the sadism of watching stories about killers like him, he's talking ostensibly to his mother; but really, he's talking to us. We're the sadists, it seems, for going to this film in the first place. Certainly Ramsay herself, as the source of these images, is implicated here, too.  But just like the film's other nods to possible reasons for Kevin's behavior (sadistic video games, child abuse, parental resentment), the idea that images and media saturation might be the source of his violence disappears, like everything else, into a void. What we are left with is the movie's dehumanizing and unsatisfying depiction of Kevin as an incomprehensible monster.

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