A general trend that has been observed (and joked about) here on The Awards Circuit is that Joey and I rarely agree on, well, anything. Our split goes far beyond select movies and into what I’m convinced are entirely different philosophies on film criticism. For a while it was confounding to me, and I’m sure to him, yet over time it has become a source of endearing fascination. It also provides me with hope whenever he dislikes a highly anticipated release and adds – to me at least – an added bit of legitimacy when we are both totally on board with a film (like the immaculate Blue Valentine in 2010). However, there are times when I hate to (mostly) agree with my colleague, and Lynne Ramsay’s long-gestating follow-up to Morvern Callar – one of my most anticipated films of 2011 – is one of them.
The film, based on an intriguing but overweening epistolary novel by Lionel Shriver, is about the mother of a psychopath named Kevin who was convicted of a school massacre some years earlier. The mother, Eva, must now deal with the outer and inner torment she suffers as she pieces together her part in his destruction. Was Kevin simply a bad kid, or did her own reluctance toward parenting him contribute to all of this? It’s an interesting question, and those of you thinking you’ll be challenged by it should temper your expectations, as Ms. Ramsay prefers to dazzle with creepy effects than have you carefully consider what’s behind them.
Understand, I still firmly argue that she is a very talented director who shows off visual acumen here as usual, but her formal chops prop up fatuous notions of motherhood that I find hard to believe. For better or usually worse, she knows exactly what she’s doing in every cut, every frame. Several scenes in the film (the tomato intro, stopping the baby from screaming, “Christmas kidnapping”) succeed all too well in being creative in their staging and unnerving in atmospherics but fail miserably in feeling like anything other than exploitative psychodrama pretending to be something of value.
And it’s all so literal, it’s asphyxiating. Joey was not kidding when he said that much of the film is bathed in red, for example. Every time our bereaved Eva flashes back to the fateful night where her son reveals himself as a monster, everything turns to red: the lights, the walls, everything surrounds our (anti)heroine in red. Since the color red has historically been connected with anger and violence, Eva must also be drowning in the violence and resentment of her son…GET IT?!? Hey, did you find the “ironically” on-the-nose musical cues in Watchmen really inspired as opposed to just annoying? Then you’ll just love this film’s use of “Nobody’s Child,” “Mother’s Last Word to Her Son,” and “Last Christmas!” It certainly won’t be first time you’ll be bashed over the head with heavy-handed motifs to tell you, well, surprisingly little. It’s even more aggravating when Ramsay fractures her timeline to coyly hide what we already know is coming while slathering on obvious foreshadowing (Kevin’s really getting good with that bow…WINK, WINK).
In fact, the one thing I disagree with my colleague on is the performances. Tilda Swinton is fine but hardly the revelation that so many have heralded. This isn’t really her fault; I don’t think it’s possible for any actress to do that much with such stifling material, but I don’t think I’ll ever understand how moviegoers and Oscar voters could collectively shrug at her frequent superlative lead performances in the past to fawn over this. John C. Reilly fits comfortably into his role as the reliable dolt, his dopey refusal to see the darkness growing inside his son a convenient way to stack the deck in favor of our increasingly tormented mother. The actors playing Eva’s little hellchild at the various stages of his life all overdo it. For chrissakes, Ezra Miller, you’re playing a troubled kid, not a Sith Lord! Then again, maybe I’m being too hard on the guy. For all I know Ramsay specifically told him and the others to be preposterously diabolical. That’s certainly how he’s written (Ewwww, he’s glaring at his mother while he’s masturbating!).
In fact, that’s another big problem with the movie: Kevin’s evil is so overemphasized as to completely lack credibility. I’ve my fair share of good and bad young children in my life, all ranging from wonderful to insufferable, and I can still recall my teenage years all too well, and I can say with a fair amount of certainty that No. Kid. Talks or acts like Kevin. He’s not portrayed as a product of bad parenting or a sociopathic mind, but as a screenwriter’s tool to convey musty nihilistic platitudes (“There is no point…that’s the point!”). It’s a little hard to give much credence to the “complex” issue of nature vs. nurture presented here if it’s played out as a tawdry war of wills between the teenage embodiment of evil and a constantly-martyred submissive.
*Sigh*…what a disappointment, especially coming from the woman who had such promise at the beginning of the new millennium. How could the director of Ratcatcher not seem to display any understanding of even basic child psychology now? How could the director of Morvern Callar use such obvious, pretentious camera tricks to reinforce simplistic characterizations in her follow-up? Whatever the explanation for this lazily-written parody of an art film, I can only humbly eat crow and submit that exceptional promise does not always equal exceptional results.