Cannes 2011. Lynne Ramsay's "We Need to Talk About Kevin"

David Hudson

Updated through 5/24.

We Need to Talk About Kevin "heralds the rebirth of director Lynne Ramsay, who shot Ratcatcher in 1999, Morvern Callar in 2001 and then dropped clean off the map. She's been away too long." The Guardian's Xan Brooks finds this comeback "extraordinary — a maternal nightmare fired by a narrative that's not so much fractured as liquid; blending and folding its time-frame to mesmeric effect. Tilda Swinton is the middle-class American mum, toiling to process the actions of her sociopath son (Ezra Miller, positively sulphurous). Along the way, Ramsay's intense, distinctive visuals work a curious alchemy on Lionel Shriver's source novel, navigating a central conceit (the demon seed!) that in other hands might come across as crass and cheap."

"The novel was a series of letters, written by Eve (Swinton) to her husband in the aftermath of Kevin's actions; the film flickers and skips between moments like memory, or a bad dream, and the net effect is both as plainspoken as a death sentence and as impressionistic as color on a stark background." James Rocchi for the Playlist: "The formalist construction here is a thing of wonder — there's a brute splash or slash of red in so many scenes that you think Ramsay must be joking, and then she throw in a brief nod to assure you that she is (watch carefully in the grocery store) and then continues so that it is clear she is not. Jonny Greenwood's muted score mixes with blues and pop numbers, some too-on-the-nose and some not. The sonic collage of the film — suburban sprinklers hissing and ticking like coiled vipers, far-away sirens and up-close whispers — also works to establish mood and tone with real and rich effect."

"The film is at its best in its first hour or so, when it's at its most daring," argues Dave Calhoun in Time Out London. "The opening of the film sees Eva's sleeping dream of being carried aloft in rapture at a Spanish tomato festival morph into a waking nightmare of her modest house being viciously attacked with red paint. Tomatoes become paint until soon, via ketchup, there are hints of police sirens and blood, although we never see blood itself. Sound design is as rigorously and creatively employed as Seamus McGarvey's excellent photography. A prisoner's scream turns into a baby's cry turns into the scream of a pneumatic drill. The film is full of such clever, teasing juxtapositions as thematic links are made between the past and present. A distant Christmas for Eva spent in the bosom of her family dissolves to Christmas present and her new solitary life as a teen prisoner's mother and public outcast. In other hands, the choice of George Michael's 'Last Christmas' at this juncture might seem obvious. Here, it sends a shiver down the spine." Calhoun also interviews Ramsay.

"There are some general impressions given up front about what we're waiting for, but until you've gone through the entire journey, you are not prepared for just how harrowing an experience it's going to be," warns Drew McWeeney at HitFix.


"With this film, Tilda Swinton establishes herself as the one to beat for best-actress honors at 2011 Cannes," declares the Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt. It's a "mesmerising performance," agrees Mark Adams in Screen.

Micropsia's gathering grades from various critics.

I don't like pointing to sites behind paywalls, but Adam Dawtrey does have an interesting piece on the film's making in Variety: "When the original financing fell through in 2008, the project was only saved by Ramsay's willingness to tear up her script and rethink it for a much lower budget. The film was supposed to cost $12 million. But even with its star Tilda Swinton hot from her Oscar for Michael Clayton, the collapsing indie sales market simply wouldn't support it. The only option was for Ramsay to come up with a version that could be shot for $7 million. It wasn't a question of just trimming a few scenes, but of reconceiving the project's whole point of view."

Updates: "I wish I could say the picture is an unequivocal success," sighs Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek. "The filmmaking is extraordinary; it's the story that gets in the way…. One warning signal after another goes unheeded, and by the movie's last third, the pileup of obvious signs is unforgivable."

"We Need to Talk About Kevin's purposefully inconsistent lucid-nightmare structure prevents it from ever achieving a successfully oppressive mood," finds Simon Abrams, writing for the L. "In spite of its fantastic pop-art visuals, the film frequently buckles underneath the weight of its labored and schematic story. It doesn't move, it just grinds along until it stops. I wish I was as awestruck by Kevin's formal control as its staunch defenders seem to be."

"Much has been made of the fact that Cannes, this year, is giving more of a chance to women directors," writes the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw. "This certainly looks like a more female take on the traditional high school gun tragedy — compared to, say, Gus Van Sant's Elephant. Ramsay's superb film reminds us that someone does the dirty, dreary work of explaining, feeling unhappy, going on prison visits and generally carrying the can. And that may well be the mother. As Swinton's Eva wearily washes off the red paint that someone has splattered over her porch, the movie wanly restates the undramatic truth: the mess must be cleaned up somehow, and it isn't the men who wind up doing it."

"Unfortunately, Ramsay's adaptation was completed after the festival premiere of Beautiful Boy, another movie about the aftermath of a high school shooting and the impact it has on the shooter's parents." IndieWIRE's Eric Kohn: "That one, however, works as a straightforward portrait, while Kevin successfully gets under our skin much in the same way it impacts Eva. 'You don't look happy,' she tells Kevin at one point before his violent outburst. 'Have I ever?' he shoots back, and gets no reply, suggesting that Eva has conceded his destiny as a problem child with no apparent solution."

Melissa Anderson for Artforum: "Though Ezra Miller is undoubtedly sinister as the archery-obsessed adolescent Kevin, the festival may need to create a Palme d'Enfant to acknowledge the formidable, creepy talents of Jasper Newell, who plays Kevin at age eight — and is the most baleful child actor I've ever seen."

The Festival has quotes and audio from the press conference.

Updates, 5/13: "Kevin is strikingly subjective throughout, a testament to Ramsay's work with Werner Herzog's regular editor, Joe Bini." And Karina Longworth elaborates on that a bit at the Voice Film blog before writing: "If Kevin's structure is the basis of its occasional brilliance, it's ultimately also its Achilles heel. The elliptical, teasing nature of the narrative inevitably sets up a big finish. To her credit, Ramsay refuses to fetishize the story's most extreme acts of violence — remaining locked into Eve's point of view, we see only glimpses, some of them probably imagined. Ramsay saves the big, manipulative guns for a ludicrous concluding scene, in which one of the film's core questions is posed and answered in plain language, culminating in an emotional punctuation that feels like false closure. It's a cop out."

"Ms Ramsay sabotages her refined visual style with the bluntness of her storytelling, washing the screen with red and turning Kevin into a demon child of near-parodic proportions," finds Manohla Dargis in the New York Times.

But at In Contention, Guy Lodge argues that "this question-riddled film may not have quite the environmental specificity of Ratcatcher and her shorts, or the tingly intimacy of Morvern Callar, but it's the bigger, broader application of her five-sense style she needed to make for this long-awaited career re-arrival. It's a testament to the extent that she's sinuously rerouted her harsh source material that full knowledge of the outcome didn't loosen the knot in this viewer's stomach from first pristine frame to last; 'I want to throw up,' I remarked to a friend upon exiting the theater. 'But in a good way.'"


For Glenn Heath Jr at the House Next Door, "even when the film becomes slightly obvious, it retains an unmatched sense of raw emotion. In the end, the haloed lens flares, the abrupt hard cuts, and the brilliant blocking of characters constructs a timeline of distress seen through Eva's hollowing eyes, many diverging experiences and incomplete memories battling for supremacy."

The Telegraph's Sukhdev Sandhu: "Some may find the colour symbolism — every other object or space is livid red — as well as the stress placed on texture an ambience rather overdone. But with no resolution or redemption on offer, it's remarkable how easily Ramsay sustains our interest right to the very end."

Charlotte Higgins reports on the press conference for the Guardian, taking her headline from this bit from Tilda Swinton: "It is a bloody business being in a family; a bloody business having a child and a really bloody business, as we know, being a child. It is a truly murderous business giving birth: it is a violent place to go."

For the Independent's Kaleem Aftab, "John C Reilly is wasted in the role of Kevin's father, Franklin, appearing sporadically as a glorified cheerleader who is trying hard to support mother and son. As a result the 'shock' ending has far less impact."

"Last year at Cannes, my favorite 'film' was the roughly hourlong section of Olivier Assayas's Carlos devoted to the 1975 OPEC hostage crisis," writes Mike D'Angelo at the AV Club. "This year, it's gonna be tough for anything to beat the gobsmacking first 30 minutes (or so) of We Need To Talk About Kevin." But then "Ramsay settles down and starts actually telling the story." In the end, the film "is an accomplished work, and it's wonderful to have Ramsay back, but I can't help but mourn the loss of the innovative masterpiece I once thought I was watching."

"It's funny," blogs the Boston Globe's Wesley Morris, Ramsay "gets Connecticut's generic suburban qualities, but you don't believe a thing that anyone does. Writing with Rory Kinnear, Ramsay cares less for the killing than about creating an air of disorientation that matches Eva's. The camera does everything but the windows — Swinton, in fact, does those (so much paint to clean!). But all that visual intensity falls away during the middle of the film and you realize that Ramsay doesn't know how to harmonize the tones. The scenes of Eva trying to connect with her increasingly satanic son want to be amusing and insinuatingly horrific. But they're just arch and obvious. Kevin's sport of choice is archery, and the camera manages to reflect a target with bull's eye in his pupil. Plus, the paint is red, and, alas, it's all over Eva's hands. Literalism has rarely been this relentless."

Jonathan Romney for the London Review: "This is not a literary adaptation as mainstream cinema would recognize it — more like a free-jazz cover version inspired by the book. With it Ramsay reclaims her place as the most idiosyncratically freewheeling director in Britain."

Updates, 5/14: "One of the world's most high-strung actresses is here tuned so tight that her wordless stare could shatter glass," writes the Voice's J Hoberman. "Ezra Miller, by comparison, is almost sympathetic as her devil child — one's merely glad to have him off the screen while Swinton's character virtually begs to be burnt at the stake."

Eric Kohn interviews Ramsay for indieWIRE, Kenneth Turan for the Los Angeles Times.

Listening (10'38"). The Film Society of Lincoln Center's Eugene Hernandez talks with Ezra Miller.

For Ryland Walker Knight, blogging for Cargo, "the problem isn't craft, per se; it's focus. In fact, the film is made better (shot, edited, scored) than plenty of stylish crap. Ramsay has not lost her gift for making images — nearly every shot is interesting in one way or another — but this film makes me question whether the abstraction in her earlier films was motivated by ideas about (against) representation or, as the case is here, if the post-human plays of light and shadow were (are) simply window dressing on a jumble of arguments that only tear and fray."

Update, 5/15: For Time Out New York's David Fear, "it isn't long before Kevin starts to simplify its sociology about maternal frustration to dumbed-down basics, force its star to do a kabuki-theater take on post-tragedy pariahood and, worse, reduce its titular youth to a bad-seed cliché."

Updates, 5/17: In the Guardian, Lionel Shriver recounts trying to sell this novel at the worst possible time only to see it eventually pick up steam. Now, she's been to Cannes: "Talking to Ezra in Cannes was so eerily like having a conversation with Kevin himself that at the premiere's after-party I turned to him with narrowed eyes. 'You little shit,' I said. Rationally I knew better, but something in me truly believed that this kid had killed seven students, a teacher, and a cafeteria worker at his high school, and still thought rather well of himself for pulling the atrocity off."

"For her entire career as a feature-filmmaker, Ramsay's obsessions have stood at the intersection of youth and death," notes Mary Corliss, dispatching to Time. "Early in her first feature, Ratcatcher (1999), a boy fails to call for help when his friend is drowning in a canal. At the beginning of her next film, Morvern Callar (2002), a young woman wakes on Christmas morning to find her boy friend dead, having slit his wrists after wrapping her presents. Before Peter Jackson took over The Lovely Bones, Ramsay was scheduled to direct that tale of a murdered 14-year-old girl who speaks to her grieving family from beyond the grave. The Shriver novel was thus a natural for Ramsay."

Viewing (1'56"). The BBC interviews Swinton and Reilly.

Updates, 5/23: For Richard Porton, writing for the Daily Beast, Ramsay's "gift for visual fireworks eventually proves sadly overwrought since the need to be obtrusively 'cinematic' overwhelms and, to a certain extent serves to mask, the rather banal story it encases."

"Oscilloscope Laboratories, the company founded by Beastie Boy Adam Yauch and ThinkFilm veteran David Fenkel, has acquired North American rights," reports Steven Zeitchik in the Los Angeles Times.

Update, 5/24: Drew McWeeney talks with Swinton for HitFix.

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