Monthly Archives: December 2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) – The Dark Side of Motherhood

When a teenager goes on a violent rampage and kills his fellow students, who is to blame?  Someone has to be responsible for such unnecessary, wanton violence.  We feel that we can’t blame the kid, because he’s not an adult and is therefore not responsible for his actions.  Instead, we blame the parents, usually the mother.  In our societal consciousness, the mother is always to blame for her child’s character.

Lynne Ramsay’s new film, We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), addresses this question of parental responsibility.  When we first meet Eva Khatchadourian (a marvelous Tilda Swinton), she is a pariah in her town, shunned by all her neighbors and former friends as the town recovers from her son’s attack on the school.  The film jumps back and forth in time as we learn more about Eva and her troubled relationship with her son, Kevin.

From the moment Kevin is born, Eva instantly feels a profound alienation from him.  The film portrays our darkest fears about motherhood: what if we don’t love our baby?  What if we’re bad parents?  What if our child manifests our worst qualities?  What if we can’t fix them?  All these questions manifest themselves in the film, as both Kevin and Eva distinctly dislike each other.  Even as a baby, he cries constantly in her arms and will only quiet when his father (John C. Reilly) holds him.

As Kevin grows up, he becomes openly antagonistic toward his mother.  One of the most disturbing aspects of this film (and there are many) is seeing a small child be purposefully cruel.  It’s not news that children can be mean and hurtful, but the look in 6-year-old Kevin’s eyes as he says extremely calculated things to his mother is terrifying.  As a teenager, this quality only worsens, and Ezra Miller is pitch-perfect as teenage Kevin.  His dark, angry gaze seems to pierce through Ms. Swinton’s thin frame, and his line delivery is just chilling.  The fact that he looks so much like his mother is, of course, purposeful, and it gives his coldness a doubly eerie effect.

Ms. Ramsay’s mastery of the visuals in this film is remarkable.  She knows just how long to linger on a shot so that it creates tension and suspense but doesn’t overdo it.  Her camera purposefully gives us extreme close-ups of Kevin’s acne-ridden chin and Eva’s worn-out face, highlighting their humanity and their brokenness.  Ramsay also uses what I call the “Dexter credits sequence technique” (although her version is much less stylized) of making everyday images and acts extremely creepy.  You will never look at a jelly sandwich the same again.

The emotional center of the film is, of course, Ms. Swinton.  I always have a hard time even describing her as an actress because there is simply no one like her.  She never pushes for your pity, and her characters are often hard to like, but she is nonetheless mesmerizing as a performer.  Her face changes aspects so subtly and completely.  In the rare instances when she smiles in this film, she seems a completely different person.  So much of her performance here is nonverbal.  Words have failed her in parenthood and in her relationships, so by the end she is practically mute.  We nonetheless can read every single expression on her face and in her body.  Never has a woman seemed both so broken and so determined to keep going.

The film’s one problem is in the husband’s character.  John C. Reilly, though he is a wonderful and respected actor, is miscast in the part.  Mr. Reilly’s teddy bear aspect makes the oblivious father almost cartoonishly so.  He and Ms. Swinton have very little chemistry, and his character is so roughly drawn that we have no sense of what he’s like outside of parenting.  Does he even have a job?  I suppose this could be a simple side effect of spending so much time delving into Eva’s character, but a less benign actor might have pulled it off better.  There is, however, something to be said for spending so much time on a female character that you neglect her male counterpart.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is, simply put, a beautifully made, haunting film.  It is almost a perverse fairy tale, provoking us to think about what-ifs and fear for our hypothetical (or real) children.  In the end, the film leaves the question of blame unanswered.  Did Eva make Kevin evil because she didn’t want him and desired her own life?  Was Kevin inherently violent?  Why did all this happen?  No one, not even Ms. Ramsay, seems to know the answer, and that’s the point.  Sometimes, there is no answer.

 

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5 Awesome Uses of Songs in TV Shows

This may seem like a random subject to write about, but the use of music in TV shows is something I really notice.  Consistently good song choices can elevate a show dramatically and make scenes stay with you after the episode ends.  These are the examples that come to mind:

 

Buffy the Vampire Slayer – “Full of Grace” by Sarah McLachlan

Buffy had many wonderful song choices over the years – “Wild Horses,” “Goodbye to You,” “A Prayer for Saint Francis” – but none of them hit me so hard as “Full of Grace” at the end of “Becoming, Part II.”  When Buffy stabs Angel and sends him to hell right after he regains his soul, hearing McLachlan’s haunting voice is like a second punch to the gut.  As Sarah Michelle Gellar’s expressive face just crumples, we cannot help but fall apart as we hear, “The winter here’s cold…and bitter…and chills us to the bone.”  The song continues to the end of the episode, leaving us hanging as Buffy abandons Sunnydale.  Season 2 is beautiful television for many reasons, and this sequence is one of them.  I couldn’t find a good YouTube video of the scene, so here’s a picture to give you an idea:

 

Alias – “No Man’s Woman” by Sinead O’Connor

Alias was an awesome show for many reasons, but its primary asset was its protagonist, Sydney Bristow.  Sydney was a kickass spy chick played by the fabulous and athletic Jennifer Garner.  In the very first episode, “Truth Be Told,” J.J. Abrams uses Sinead O’Connor’s “No Man’s Woman” to give the climactic sequence some punch.  Both the rhythm and the lyrics go perfectly with the message of the scene: Sydney will not be bossed around by anyone.  She will kick ass and take names in her own way, and Sloane (and the audience) can take it or leave it.

 

Nip/Tuck – “Natasha” by Rufus Wainwright

Like many people, I have some problems with Ryan Murphy as a showrunner (regarding Glee in particular).  Nip/Tuck was a bit of a mess, but it was consistently entertaining and provocative.  One of the most remarkable elements of the show was the use of music.  Every episode, Christian and Sean would go to work on a patient, and whatever song they had in the CD player always contributed an ironic commentary to the proceedings. This sequence, however, is the most profoundly moving one in the show.  Christian (Julian McMahon) is a mess of a person, consistently treating women like crap and therefore unable to have healthy relationships with anyone.  In the episode entitled “Natasha Charles,” however, he meets a beautiful blind woman named….guess…Natasha (Rebecca Gayheart).  When they sleep together, she makes him close his eyes, and her ability to treasure him without actually seeing him makes it the most intimate encounter he has over the course of the show (and he has many).  He treats her terribly later on, of course, because Christian is nothing if not self-destructive, but this scene is the most vulnerable he ever allows himself to be.  Rufus Wainwright’s gorgeous “Natasha” not only fits the scene due to its name, but it also gives it a lyrical, intimate beauty that makes it seem almost like a dream.  This is probably the most sublime moment of Christian’s life, and the floating melody of the song makes that quite apparent.

 

The O.C. – “Hide and Seek” by Imogen Heap

You can’t really write about music in TV shows without including The O.C.  When the show was at its peak in seasons 1 and 2, it brought bands like Death Cab for Cutie and Wilco to the forefront of teen music culture.  It was a teen soap, but it was very well made.  The most memorable musical moment (sorry for the alliteration) was when Marissa shot Trey to the haunting tune of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek.”  Although this scene was later parodied to hilarious effect on SNL, the timing of the music and dramatic resonance of the scene gave everyone chills.   Discussion of Marissa shooting Trey was all over my high school the next day, and a huge part of that was the song.

 

Sons of Anarchy – the whole series

I have to include Sons of Anarchy here, but I can’t pick just one song!  I bought the soundtrack, “Songs of Anarchy,” a few days ago, and I’ve been listening to it nonstop.  The show uses heavy metal for background noise most of the time, but when they really want to emphasize a sequence or montage, we get beautiful and haunting folk covers.  Between Audra Mae’s cover of “Forever Young,” Curtis Stiger’s “John the Revelator,” Joshua James’s “Coal War” and The White Buffalo’s “House of the Rising Sun,” there are so many moments in the series that are made memorable by their music.   No clips available on YouTube, but here are “Forever Young” and “House of the Rising Sun”:

 

Well, that’s my list.  What are your favorite song sequences?

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