“We Need To Talk About Kevin” – Lynne Ramsay

Beyond the fact that the three greatest film makers in the world are David Lynch, David Lynch and David Lynch, the five or six serious film makers working in the medium today are Anh Hung Tran, Atom Egoyan, Julio Medem, Todd Solondz and Lynne Ramsay (but then what about Marco Bellocchio, or Scorsese…).

So the lukewarm response that the latest film from the latter evoked in Britain was surprising. Because We Need To Talk About Kevin is immaculate.

Ramsay made her debut in 1999 with Ratcatcher, an unusually lyrical and slightly detached look at growing up on a council estate. She followed that in 2002 with Morvern Callar, which was even more doggedly elliptical, and concentrated on evoking a mood and conjuring up an atmosphere rather than rigidly pursuing a narrative drive.

So few people familiar with her work can have been surprised at the way in which she approached adapting Lionel Shriver’s acclaimed novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin. The slightly bigger budget and the presence of the relatively well-known Tilda Swinton and John C Reilly as the put-upon parents mean that it’s slightly more conventional than her two previous films. But it also provided her with the scaffolding on which to build an even more impressive construct that melds visual grandeur with sonic panache.

It’s hard to know what the critics in London had been expecting. Matthew Sweet managed to complain on the BBC’s Late Review that it added nothing to the horror genre. Well no. That’s because it’s not a horror film. While we’re on the subject, it’s pretty disappointing as bedroom farce as well.

Other critics complained about the heavy-handed symbolism. But it’s not symbolism that the film employs. Rather, there are a series of visual and sonic motifs that ripple and reverberate throughout the piece as a whole, and that reflect and connect the characters to their surroundings, sending currents and waves across the surface.

It’s not an enjoyable film, obviously, nor should it be. It acts instead as a companion piece to Gus Van Sant’s brilliant Elephant from 2003, which justly won that year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes. That explored the conventionally held view that the sort of kids who inexplicably open fire on their hapless classmates are completely normal. Kevin offers up the corollary to that. What if some kids are just bad (though the book it should be noted is more ambivalent of the question of blame.)?

Austere yet expansive, Seamus McGarvey’s pristine cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s insidious score combine to produce a work of rare cinematic quality. And, like The Lives Of Others, it eventually offers relief from its unremitting oppression. As with its very last line and gesture, the faintest glimmer of hope is finally allowed to break through.

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