Tag Archives: 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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The Descendants (2011)

Alexander Payne’s The Descendants (2011) is a lovely meditation on human imperfection and familial love.  While Sideways explored the isolating potential of eccentricity and obsession, Payne uses his newest film to examine the healing effects of love and connection.  Every character in The Descendants is a significantly flawed individual, but these imperfections do not define them.  With a brilliant cast and a screenplay that blends humor and pathos, Payne has made a film populated by real people, living in the “real” Hawaii.

The Descendants tells the story of a middle-aged father, Matt (George Clooney), whose wife is in a coma after a boating accident.  As the self-described “backup parent,” he must now figure out how to interact effectively with his two daughters, 17-year-old Alex (a radiant Shailene Woodley) and 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller).  When Alex tells him that his wife was cheating on him, Matt has to come to terms with his new view of her as he says goodbye and spreads the word of her condition to family and friends.

Mr. Clooney gives the most heartfelt performance of his career, abandoning all sense of “cool” and vanity.  He is unabashedly middle-aged, and to watch him run awkwardly in loafers is only one of the many moments of physical comedy in the film.  He also nails some really emotional moments – his facial expressions when the doctor tells him his wife’s prognosis are heartbreaking to watch.  Matt’s relationship to his daughters is the center of the film, and these two promising actresses work wonderfully with Mr. Clooney.  I actually found myself sad at the end that they were not a real family.

The cast of characters surrounding the main family is colorful but realistic.  Nick Krause is hilarious as Alex’s stoner boyfriend with a hidden perceptive side (a la Keanu Reeves in Parenthood), and the ever dependable Judy Greer gives a lovely, nuanced performance later in the film.  With every character in The Descendants, their redeeming factor is their love for the people close to them.  Even Matt’s father-in-law, an insensitive, passive-aggressive bully who punches a teenage boy in the face, is made human when we witness his love for his daughter.  Love is what defines humanity in this film.

The uncredited star of the film is Hawaii.  In my opinion, Kauai is the most beautiful place in the world, and Mr. Payne shoots its lush valleys and mountainsides with the adoration they deserve.  He is also committed, however, to portraying the ‘normal’ side of Hawaii, the anti-paradise.  The family’s house is strewn with damp leaves, and the sky in their Oahu neighborhood is perpetually grey.  Paradise does not necessarily produce happy people.  Just like the other characters in the film, Hawaii has plenty of flaws.  When Matt finds a place he cannot part with, however, both he and the island are healed.

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The Help (2011)

I have yet to read the book (I know, I know, I’m behind the times), but I finally saw Tate Taylor’s movie of The Help on my return flight from London.  Here are my thoughts, in informal bullet points:

The Good:

  • The cast was uniformly excellent.  I had some doubts about Emma Stone in a dramatic role, but she did a good job.  Jessica Chastain was wonderful (and looked amazing) as the spacey outcast, Celia, and Bryce Dallas Howard was deliciously bitchy as the villainous Hilly.  The real star of the film is Viola Davis, who I’ve loved since I saw her almost non-speaking performance in Far From Heaven (2002).  Here, she gets a meaty role that allows her to do subtle but powerful work.  She also gets the main voiceover, which made me very happy from a subjectivity standpoint.  Even though it’s the white woman doing the publishing, the black woman is telling the story.  Also wonderful was Octavia Spencer, who looks incredibly familiar, but I can’t place her in a specific role.  I think I’m just so used to seeing her face in her various bit parts.  Her angry performance brought a great deal of comic relief to the film without undermining the seriousness of her perspective.

  • The pacing and writing are generally very tight.  The film is almost two and a half hours but moves along at a swift pace.
  • The film did a really lovely job of portraying the relationships between the black maids and their white children.  Every time Cicely Tyson was onscreen, she brought gravitas and warmth, and Viola Davis’s scenes with her charge were the center of the film.  The most gratifying element of it, from a feminist perspective, is that both Aibileen (Davis) and Constantine (Tyson) are determined to impart messages of strength and self-respect to their girls.  Aibileen repeatedly tells Mae Mobley, “You is kind, you is smart, you is important.” The fact that she worries about the girl’s looks to herself but does not include “You is pretty” in this mantra is significant.  The women in The Help know that looks play an important role in our culture, but they are doing their best to give young girls a sense of self-worth beyond the surface.

The Bad:

  • Why why why why why did they put this hair on Emma Stone???  I get that they’re trying to make her look plain, but it’s supposedly Skeeter’s natural hair, and yet it looks like a terrible perm gelled to within an inch of its life.  There are so many other ways to give her “bad hair” without it being this distracting.

WHY????

  • A number of plot moments didn’t quite ring true.  Skeeter’s boyfriend, who supposedly loves her for her intelligence and spunk, leaves her because of her book, telling her that she is “a selfish person.” Not only does this not make any logical sense, but he also has not been shown to be particularly embroiled in the establishment before, so his sudden investment in Jackson society makes no sense.  Also, when Celia’s husband suddenly turns out to be the sweetest man on the planet, it feels cheap and undeveloped.  For all we knew, he was a bigot like everyone else and, had they taken the time to establish his character earlier in the film (pretty sure we saw his face once before his encounter with Minny), his incredibly understanding stance would have been more believable.  The uses of both these men was purely as plot devices.  On the other hand, though, it’s a new experience to be saying that about male characters for once…
  •  Nelsan Ellis, of True Blood fame, was criminally underused in this film.  I am the first to admit that True Blood has gotten pretty terrible, but Ellis is an amazing actor, and I would have liked to see more of him in a non-Lafayette capacity.

Although Lafayette is ok too....

The Verdict:

The Help was a very well-made movie, both thought-provoking and entertaining.  It has some treacly lines and silly plot developments, but it does a very good job of exploring ideas of subjectivity, gender, and race.  I know the book has been the target of a lot of debates, so I will have to address that when I read it.  There are problematic ways you could read the “white women helps black ladies tell their story” message, but the movie means well, and it manages to be genuinely moving without hitting you over the head.  At its core, it is a film about harnessing the power of language to gain agency, and that is what these women do.

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