This exclusive CityArts series will chart the recent peculiar releases that failed to get Oscar nominations. Yet, just like the Oscar-nominated fare, these movies are not a part of film culture but exist outside what moviegoers patronize and talk about. The films’ staggered release from December 2011 to early 2012 delays the effects of film on the public. These movies don’t seek popular response; they’re made simply to stroke filmmakers’ egotism.
Halfway into We Need to Talk About Kevin, the demon child of the title gets weaponized. His clueless dad (John C. Reilly) gives him a hunter’s bow and arrow for a Christmas present, hastening the tragedy you already know is coming. The film’s director, Lynne Ramsey, isn’t just obvious, she’s obviously hateful. We Need to Talk About Kevin is part of the stylish miserablism Ramsey favors, as in Ratcatcher, her insufferable and deservedly forgotten debut film from 2000.
Ramsey’s bleak, hopeless social view suggests art-school trendiness. She’s made a reverse fairy tale where everything works out for the worst. Ramsey’s negative posturing substitutes for genuine emotional engagement with the subject of Family. Unlike great family narratives that are also social critiques (such as Minnelli’s Home From the Hill , Michael Bortman’s Crooked Hearts and John Boorman’s Where the Heart Is), Ramsey’s approach carries a peculiar political animus to subvert the status quo.
When Kevin goes wrong, his frustrated mother Eva (Swinton) is to blame. This further distances novelist Lionel Shiver’s conceit that parenting is responsible for fate. Not the old Momism plaint, or even the spooky cautionary view of The Bad Seed (1956), but a twisted form of feminism that renounces biological destiny. So when Kevin turns out to be a mass murderer, Ramsey fashionably suggests only abortion could have halted this godless inevitability.
To judge by the reviews and awards, art-house liberals don’t seem offended by Ramsey’s guilt-inducing, finger-pointing tactics, but they should be insulted by her blatancy: The opening montage of Eva crowd surfing over chaotic throngs covered in what looks like tomato juice symbolizes a Columbine-type massacre—for Ramsey a typical metaphor for American psychosis. Kevin feels like a throwback to the America-hatred of the Bush-era.
This probably explains Tilda Swinton’s hollow-eyed participation in Kevin. Swinton’s artiness doesn’t always go sour; she was the single poignant aspect of the ludicrous Benjamin Button and was marvelous in Orlando, Friendship’s Death and The Last of England. Yet she’s never convincing when playing an American (The Deep End, Michael Clayton). Here, Swinton’s impersonation of an All-American mom is freakily unreal. Ramsey’s most interesting ploy was to find a boy who looks like Swinton to play her son. The androgynous resemblance is Ramsey’s version of maternal guilt. For two hours, Swinton just looks distraught—her depiction of alienation is no more than British art hauteur being miscast as a middle-American anomie (a condition Uma Thurman aced in Katherine Dieckmann’s Motherhood).
After suffering shame, humiliation and abuse for her son’s evil-doing, Swinton’s Eva ends up in a hospital clasping her pale hand to a black woman’s hand in a most patronizing closing scene. It’s the exasperating movie of 2011.
Follow Armond White on Twitter @3xchair.