December 11, 2011

MOVIES: We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)

What is a mother to do when she finds herself raising a child that she doesn't like very much, a child who she comes to believe may be so evil as to be unworthy of love at all? That's the dilemma facing Eva (Tilda Swinton) in We Need to Talk About Kevin, a chilly and impressionistic look at a woman coping with her own sense of responsibility after her teenage son kills several of his high school classmates.

Director Lynne Ramsay fragments the story, jumping back and forth in time, giving us tiny pieces of information and trusting us to put them together. And as we do, the real horror of Eva's situation begins to sink in: Her son hasn't been warped by bad parenting; he's simply a budding sociopath from day one.

And we get to watch him grow up, with three different actors playing the role. Kudos to Ramsay and casting director Billy Hopkins for finding three kids who look enough alike to be convincing, and for getting such creepy, affectless performances from all three -- Rocky Duer as the world's most malevolent toddler, Jasper Newell as a willfully bratty pre-teen, and Ezra Miller (who gets the most screen time of the three) as the teenaged Kevin.

It's Swinton's movie, though, and she's very good here, struggling to cope not only with her son, but with a husband (John C. Reilly, whose amiable doofus shtick is put to good use) who doesn't see the problem, and with a marriage that's disintegrating under the strain.

Sadly, the movie is not up to the level of the performances from Swinton and Miller. Ramsay's hopscotching through time feels somewhat aimless, and gets tiring after a while; it begins to feel as if Ramsay is withholding information not for any particular storytelling purpose, but merely for the sake of being artsy and cryptic. Worth seeing, though, for the strength of the central performances.

A note to those of you in Los Angeles: The movie's having a one-week Oscar qualifying run here (it'll re-open more widely in January), at the Silent Movie on Fairfax. That's an odd choice for such a run, and it's not a good place to see a movie. It's a cramped room with ancient, uncomfortable seating, a tiny screen, and a terrible sound system. It's currently used mostly for eccentric repertory screenings at night, and rarely does regular runs of first-run films. Unless you really feel compelled to see the movie right now, I'd wait to see it in a real theater in January.

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