But first we need to talk about Lynne Ramsay, or at least take a moment to emphasize just how promising the Scottish writer/director’s career has been. With Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Callar (2002), not to mention the award-winning shorts, Ramsay quickly established herself as an ambitious young filmmaker with a strangely seductive if whispery-hermetic way with atmospheres, as well as an ability to convey female identity through existentialist channels the movies typically reserve for men. Most of us who saw Morvern Callar and its stunning breakthrough performance from Samantha Morton had been waiting a long time to see what Ramsay would do next. That what she was doing next involved Tilda Swinton only whetted the appetite more.
But We Need to Talk About Kevin, her adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s bad seed novel of the same name, is the most frustrating sort of follow-up. Because from start to finish it exudes so much of what’s made Ramsay’s work intriguing, yet the net result feels so divested of urgency, almost hollow. It begins with moments that ooze portent: billowing curtains, memories of Swinton body-surfing amidst tomato-people, a dysfunctional doorknob and paint-splattered house. The narrative is delivered in puzzle-like pieces, there are eerie links between photocopiers and ultrasounds, and the audacious deployment of a Japanese music score. But soon this tale of 100% justifiable maternal anxiety, set in the US, starts to creak with facile choices, such as Ramsay’s hokey Americana: the strip-mall travel agency with zombified employees and crumpled destination posters from 40 years ago, the supermarket where they play the muzak version of ‘Greensleeves.’
Everything about Kevin feels numbingly overdetermined, most especially the relationship between its protagonist—Swinton’s doomed mommy—and antagonist—Ezra Miller’s titular kid from hell, seemingly born to torment mother and finally become a mass murderer who’s into collecting fingernails orally but is otherwise bereft of personality. Its portrait of marital entropy is equally flat, with Swinton’s woozy motel sex with John C. Reilly all-too-glumly reduced to bland bourgeois suburban boredom. (Curiously, following Carnage, this makes two in a row where Reilly has a rotten kid and is completely insensitive to guinea pigs.) At times it’s tempting to describe it as a Todd Solondz movie but not funny. But the truth is that for all its problems it is unmistakably Ramsay, and thus excellent proof that auteurism is not in itself any guarantee of cinematic rewards.