With Halloween lurking just days away, it is the traditional time for candy to be stockpiled, lanterns to be carved out of pumpkins (or turnips when I were a lad), and children to be draped in sheets and sent out plastic bucket in hand trick or treating.
So in the spirit of the season, as the night reclaims the evenings, I thought I’d offer an alternative Halloween horror movie selection from norm. There are no ghosts, vampires, werewolves, of demons to be found in Lynne Ramsay’s 2011 adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, and it may make you think twice about opening your door to any neighbourhood kids. Ever.
This film presents every parent’s secret nightmare, a fear that is potent and disturbing but rarely acknowledged for fear of the shame such an admission would bring. But, have you ever been afraid, really afraid, of your own child? All children are somewhat alien are they not? Not alien in a Hollywood extra-terrestrial sense, but alien in the sense of unknowable, distasteful, disturbing. They look like adults, but they aren’t. Children say the funniest things, but sometimes they say the scariest things too.
And what if your child committed an act of unconscionable evil? How would you cope? How could you recognise the signs? How responsible would you be if you failed to stop it?
This fear has become a key disturbance rippling through the psyche of the West throughout the late 20th and early 21st century. Entering the cultural consciousness during the tumultuous 1950s and growing in the 1960s as vast cultural and social fault lines appeared. The root causes were many: affluence among the young created the notion ot the teenager; the invention of the contraceptive pill; the rise of sexual freedom and experimentation; the Vietnam war; pop culture; the civil rights movement; and so on.
This upset to the status quo was eventually subsumed into the mainstream. But the 80s saw the terrible appearance of the AIDS virus, what seems like a greater incidence of high school massacres post Columbine (or at least the mass media and the internet is creating the environment where such events are reported and appear more common); the rise of social media has created new opportunities for bullying and psychological terrorisation.
These themes have commonly been the province of the horror genre, explored in metaphorical terms in classic films such as Children of the Damned, The Night Of The Living Dead, The Exorcist, The Omen, It’s Alive, and many more pedophobic films. However Ramsey’s film is not an entry into the horror genre (at lease not a conventional one) but it uses and deals with concepts and themes common in genre films from an art house drama perspective.
In Kevin, Tilda Swinton plays Eva, a successful and independent travel writer. When she becomes unexpectedly pregnant, her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) is delighted. Eva is less excited, worrying about the effect of a baby on her career and independence and feeling alienated from the joyousness of other mothers in her pre-natal group. After the birth of Kevin, Eva is clearly suffering from post-natal depression, and struggles to cope with motherhood. In one key scene unable to stop the baby from crying she wheels his pram next to a street worker using a pneumatic drill. As industrial white noise drowns out the child she achieves a moment of beatific piece before being seized by guilt.
Ramsey creates an atmosphere of dread and tension from the start by intercutting between flashbacks and flash forwards. We see Eva before during and after the pregnancy, but we also see her some years later, living alone in a cheap house, suffering abuse from random people in the street. Clearly something terrible has happened, but Ramsey will only reveal the true nature of events over the course of the next two hours. What we do see is that there are things shown to us in early scenes that are notable by there absence in the later scenes of Eva alone.
Once the initial shock of the Nick Roeg-esque editing strategy wears off (Roeg’s son Luc is one of the film’s producers), the film develops dual and interweaved story-lines. One Kevin’s story, and that of Eva’s fractious maternal relationship with him. The other the story of Eva alone and broken, no husband, no children, clearly trying to survive some cataclysmic event in an environment openly hostile towards her. These two threads are there for the audience to knit together, the film expects a level of commitment.
This is an outstanding film. Swinton delivers a stunning performance as Eva, making you feel for a character Hollywood film executives would call “unsympathetic”. As the teenage Kevin Ezra Miller (recently announced as the new movie incarnation of DC superhero The Flash) is quietly terrifying in a performance that could be a star maker. The film is also greatly aided by a subtle score from Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.
Sadly Ramsay has yet to follow We Need to Talk About Kevin after becoming embroiled in an ugly dispute with the producers of Jane Got A Gun, a revisionist western she was to have directed. A great shame as she is among the most interesting women directing films today. That’s already a far too narrow field for it to cast one its the most exciting practitioners into the wilderness.
This review previously appeared on screenjabber.com