Thursday, January 5, 2012

Short Take: "We Need to Talk About Kevin", "Carnage" and "Higher Ground".

Evil doings always bring up questions about origins: where do people learn to be evil? Is it something you're born with? Is it something the world teaches you? Art has always been fascinated with the subject and artists have tried to tackle it from psychological, spiritual and sociological points of view. The fascination with the subject and the subject itself have become a "chicken or egg" situation. Cinema in particular has a shown a fetish for showing evil children who wreak havoc on their parents or the world (if they happen to be the Antichrist). Movies like The Omen for example deal with how people react around these demonic infants and more often than not give them a protector, someone who believes in the good within them or someone who wants to encourage their evil. We Need to Talk About Kevin isn't precisely that kind of movie but it doesn't steer too far from it either. Lynne Ramsay's adaptation of Lionel Shriver's novel gives us the title child, who goes from being a rebellious baby to committing a massacre as a teenager. The movie seems to have decided that there is something very wrong with Kevin from the start, giving the audience no choice but to observe how Ramsay captures his behavior through offbeat framing and artsy sequences. Kevin is shown as a cute but creepy child, who grows into a cute but creepier teenager (played by Ezra Miller) who likes to frown all day long. Ramsay seems to have a ball displaying Kevin's darkness and the film relies too much on the facile horror conventions it's also trying to escape. Since the film has already settled his evil for us, it's up to Tilda Swinton as his mom to try and convey some humanity within the movie. As always, Swinton creates a precise portrait of someone whose humanity overflows the screen. How is it that she results such an otherworldy, almost extraterrestrial public figure, yet she always embodies imperfectly perfect humanity when she acts? As Kevin's mom, Swinton delivers yet another masterful performance that lingers between Mia Farrow's delicious work in Rosemary's Baby and Swinton's own in the remarkable The Deep End: she makes us understand that she would go to the confines of the world to rescue her child's soul, even if she has to lose hers in the process.

Jodie Foster and John C. Reilly play a liberal couple whose kid was beaten up by another kid whose parents are A types played by Kate Winslet and Christoph Waltz. Over the course of an afternoon (the film happens in real time) both couples try to come up with a civilized solution to their problem. The problem is, nobody really knows what the problem is. For the parents of the victim, it's something about having their child's integrity restored, for the parents of the abuser, the issue has to do with how many time they're losing trying to understand "child's play". Before soon, the couples are going at each other like their kids did. Roman Polanski, who's always been a fan of confinement, takes the concept to a whole new level in his adaptation of Yasmina Reza's play about the Russian doll-ness of our society. The film is superbly acted (Foster is phenomenal!) but more often than not its purpose seems to be rather vacuous. Is it an exercise for its thespians? A playground diversion for its director? Or can it be simply that the source material never had that much to say?

Few actresses are as magnetic and fascinating as Vera Farmiga. She always conveys a sense of mystery and parallel earthiness that make her seem like a pre-Raphaelite goddess who's come to life out of a painting to say something about our world. In Higher Ground, her directorial debut, she does just that by teaching us a lesson about newborn evangelical Christians. While the movies often have conversion as the twist and usually the enemy of liberal purposes, Farmiga takes her time to observe these people and show us that - gasp - they too are human! Despite their narrow minded world views, despite their beliefs that rely on an unseen force and despite their constant bible quoting, they are not "the enemy". That Farmiga manages to do this without being preachy and instead injecting the film with a languorous sensuality might be the real miracle in store.

Grades:
We Need to Talk About Kevin **½
Carnage **
Higher Ground **½

2 comments:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Wow, so weird. I love and agree with everything you say on Carnage and yet I loved it. I don't know...I don't mind that it doesn't seem to have "much" to say, it ends up working for the film with me.

On We Need to talk About Kevin I will admit that the film's big issue is the lack of specificity as to why Kevin is the way he is (well, that and Ramsay's over indulgence at times). Of course, that issue with Kevin could be explained away because the film is framed through Eva's memories. It's inconsistent, but I find it gripping nonetheless

Jose Solís said...

Carnage was a big pile of meh for me. Even if I worhsip Jodie and Kate...I'd totally see it again of course but it's not something I'm dying to revisit.
Kevin was just too full of itself. I didn't need to know why the kid was evil but I would've appreciated some subtlety. He was more evil looking than Chucky the killer doll. It's like Ramsay hates children and wants people to stop breeding. I'm not fond of careless child birthing myself but this was just too much. I don't know how Tilda managed to find some humanity in the screenplay. Also, how does John C. Reilly get to marry these amazing women on film?