Catching Up With: We Need To Talk About Kevin – 2011

Who do we blame when one person is the instrument of a horrible tragedy? Is it the person who committed the crime itself, or do we blame their environment, specifically their parents? In the case of Kevin (Jasper Newell/Ezra Miller), an eerie, sociopathic teenager behind a horrible event at his high school and Eva (Tilda Swinton), the mother he terrorized his entire life, it’s an interesting dynamic to look at. But in “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” director Lynn Ramsay’s adaptation of the Lionel Shriver novel, pretends to look at that debate. What it really does is take a delicate, psychologically rich dynamic and drown it in an over-stylized, horrific and heavy-handed mess of a movie.

I haven’t read Shriver’s book, but I do know it was structured as a series of letters written by Eva for her estranged husband, Franklin (played here by John C. Reilly), after an unknown, cataclysmic event that may have involved Kevin. The movie adopts a non-linear approach, which at the beginning of the movie makes things somewhat confusing. Three timelines are clumsily weaved through abstract imagery of Eva after the event, when she was vacationing in France and got pregnant with Kevin, and the day of the tragedy. But there are some things that are clear right off the bat. Eva never wanted to be a mother in the first place. She feels shackled by the blase trappings of the domestic life, wishing she could still travel across Europe as a travel writer. Also, there’s something not right about Kevin. At first one might think he’s a sullen, withdrawn kid (and later a teenager) but we learn quickly that he’s pure no-holds-barred evil, making the Antichrist look like one of the Flanders kids from “The Simpsons.”

The wretched, symbiotic relationship between Eva and Kevin is the engine of  the film, But this relationship and the way in which Ramsay tells the story that sink “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” I haven’t seen Ramsay’s previous independent work, and I will say she is a gifted visual stylist. But she destroys any and all nuance and subtlety to the relationship between Kevin and Eva through the years. She throws imagery depicting decay; rotting food, crayon-covered walls, etc. that is meant to be visceral but totally rings hollow. There is a lot of cheery, old folk and pop songs on the soundtrack, that wield irony like a fucking sledgehammer. The cheery bounce of “Everyday” by Buddy Holly shows up. Why? BECAUSE IT’S A HAPPY SONG AND THE LIVES OF THESE CHARACTERS ARE HORRIBLE! IT’S IRONY! GET IT?!? It’s clever the first time it’s used, but after the fourth time an old song about the joys of motherhood is used, it’s just plain tiresome. 

An even worse device, one that is lifted wholesale from the Martin Scorsese playbook, is liberal use of the color red. Every frame of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” has red on it. Eva’s house gets doused with paint. Kevin plays with a red ball. There’s nothing worse than overuse of symbolism, an incredibly hacky way of establishing a theme or message when used incorrectly.  We get a shot of red jam on Kevin’s sandwich, red furniture, streaks of blood, red everywhere. When someone like Scorsese uses red, it’s used in small doses, to underscore a character’s sins and passions. This movie uses it as the impetus for what might be a pretty fun and beneficial drinking game, since you’ll be passed out or suffering from alcohol poisoning long before Ramsay’s obvious and heavy-handed messages are through sucking the life out of the story. 

That story, the chronicle of Eva’s downfall as a mother and a human being and Kevin’s degradation from brat to sociopath to homicidal lunatic, has bigger even more troubling problems. Kevin redefines problem child. He cried all the time as a baby. He wrecked everything his mother held dear. He refuses to speak around her as a toddler, and even refuses to use the toilet until he is eight years old.  It’s at this point that Eva’s frustration leads to a boiling point, a brief flash of parental abuse that will lead both characters into a hell of their own making. As a teenager, Kevin takes up archery which he bonds over with his affable, naive father (O’Reilly is perfectly cast, but totally wasted) and he torments and injures his angelic younger sister Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich). Kevin is a monster and that is never in doubt. In a way Eva is also a monster. She has contempt for Kevin, blaming him for trapping her in the suburb dungeon, making her adventures in Europe into just another pipe dream. She tells Kevin as a baby that she’d rather be in France than taking care of him. Kevin, before and after he is imprisoned for his actions, is just a cross for Eva to bear, but society refuses to let her become a martyr for it. This sounds like a brave, tough angle to take in terms of soured mother-son relationships. But although the concept is there, the execution squanders it underneath the film’s central hypocrisy. 

“We Need To Talk About Kevin” does not know how it wants to present this dichotomy. It says Eva is a bad mother, who never truly loved her son and is partly to blame for his crimes, but at the same time it says Kevin’s case can’t be helped, because, you know, he’s a Chaplin mustache short of being Hitler. This movie wants to have its cake and eat it too (the cake is obviously red velvet, because RED IS THE SYMBOL FOR EVERYTHING! THIS MOVIE HAS THEMES DAMMIT!). It says that Eva is to blame for being a bad mother and not trying to reach Kevin, but at the same time Kevin is born evil, a bad seed, and couldn’t be saved. Those two philosophies don’t compute at all. 

At least Eva’s perspective is salvaged by an amazing performance by Tilda Swinton. One of the most unique and versatile actresses working today, Swinton uses her unique face and large, dark eyes to convey years of guilt, self-loathing and despair. Swinton turns Eva into a shameful wreck, desperately trying to piece together her shattered soul. It’s a brutal, uncompromising performance, which is saying a lot since this character is thoroughly compromised. Ezra Miller is also very good as Kevin, even though his character has bigger problems, ones that harm not only the film, but speaks to something larger that needs to be addressed. Kevin is a caricature, more like a horror movie villain than a real human being. His outburst of violence doesn’t seem like a tragic result. Since his character has no arc, it feels like a foregone conclusion that he would do what he does. His character, quite frankly, is appallingly reductive. The idea that kids are born evil is just plain idiotic. Teenagers who do these horrible things were normal at one time, and it took years of neglect to make them do what they do. All the stereotypes that came up after Colombine: death metal, torturing small animals, etc. were eventually dispelled. Marilyn Manson didn’t make anyone murder anybody. To strip Kevin of subtext, making him evil literally since the day he was born, is a gross miscalculation of how the minds of these teenager really work. It throws away everything we’ve learned from these tragedies and replaces them with campy, horror movie tropes. Some may think Ramsay and the film are being ambiguous about who to blame. I don’t see ambiguity, I see cowardice. 

Great performances aren’t enough to save “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” a film that turns it’s provocative title into a bald-faced lie. It never talks about Kevin, it expects us to be appalled by him, like a teenage Hannibal Lecter or John Doe. It strives for bold insight, and settles for bullshit. Lynn Ramsay needed to stop smearing every scene with blood red, and should’ve gone with more troubling shades of gray. 

Grade: C-

Catching Up With: Army of Darkness – 1993

I mentioned in my review of “Evil Dead 2” that the movie disappointed me in the fact that it didn’t provide enough of a fresh spin on the demon/cabin/mayhem formula set down by the first movie. Luckily, “Army of Darkness” has no such problem. At the end of “ED2” Ash (Bruce Campbell) was sent back in time to the year 1300 by the Necronomicon, unwillingly fulfilling the prophecy of a chainsaw-wielding “Hero From the Sky.” Stuck in medieval times and immediately captured by the nearby kingdom, Ash once again has to fight off the evil curse of the Book of the Dead.

Time travel is a great way to bring something new into the crazy universe this series exists in. “Army of Darkness” also has a huge cult following, just like the Evil Deads. But the legions of “Screwheads” may be disappointed to learn that “Army of Darkness” is an ecstatic lark of a comedy-adventure but not much more  from director Sam Raimi, But before you arm your boomsticks, I don’t think it’s a complete waste of time and effort.

Ash is in captivity at the hands of Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert), until he proves himself in battle against one of the “Dead-ites.” Wowing the primitive “screwheads” with his chainsaw and sawed-off shotgun, he quickly earns their adoration, and he demands that the wise man of the court send him home, which can only be accomplished by securing the Book of the Dead. That’s a sketch of a story, and for the most part it’s a sketch of a movie. What gives it some life however is , like the first two films, Raimi’s insane wit and sense of style. With an even bigger budget, “Army of Darkness” is gorgeously shot, with colors bursting off the screen, truly creating a living comic book, along with some still-impressive special effects. Also, Bruce Campbell is a freaking rock star in this movie. He still gets put through the ringer, with an undead clone literally bursting from inside of him. But he is in full action-hero mode, selling the bounty of one-liners (“Good, bad, I’m just the guy with the gun”) like an extra-gonzo Han Solo.

But, the movie doesn’t have much else. It’s a good thing this movie runs a scant 80 minutes, because it may have worn out its welcome if it ran longer. The film mostly consists of the epic battle between Ash and Arthur’s army against the legion of Deadites, who have ensnared the maiden Sheila (Embeth Davidtz). Made up of legions of animated skeletons (a tribute to “Jason and the Argonauts” and the work of  FX legend Ray Harryhausen). The battle is a mixed bag; it is funny and cleverly shot and staged, showcasing Raimi’s affinity for Three Stooges slapstick. But the humor comes from one of my motal enemies: puns. There are so many painfully lame jokes that will have you rolling your eyes quite often. I just don’t find enjoyment in a skeleton saying he has a “bone to pick” with someone. It’s annoying on “Sex and the City” and it’s annoying here. The campy humor and tone gave me the same reaction that I had to Raimi’s first “Spider-Man” movie: this is a Power Rangers episode with a bigger budget and better acting. I know “Army of Darkness” is self-aware, but there is only so much stupidity one can take. It stops being enjoyable and starts being exhausting.

But this film still has style to burn and the wacky charisma of Bruce Campbell to keep it afloat, but just barely. Overall this series has been a slight disappointment for me, with “Army” and “Evil Dead 2” being mild disappointments after the fantastic first movie. Neither one came close to Raimi’s excellent 2009 horror comeback “Drag Me to Hell.” It might be expectations, it might be my prejudice of beat-up old Oldsmobiles. There is still plenty of gory, irreverent fun to be had.

Grade: B-

Catching Up With: Evil Dead 2 – 1987

If the original “Evil Dead” was writer/director Sam Raimi’s “Mean Streets,” than “Evil Dead 2,” made six years later on a much larger budget, is his “Goodfellas,” in that it takes the skeleton of the first film and expands on its execution; every insane idea Raimi had that was limited by a small budget in this movie. There’s more gore, more Scorsese-on-crack camerawork, more everything. But does bigger mean better in the case of “Evil Dead 2”? Not quite. I know this movie is hailed as possibly the greatest horror sequel ever made (a title that can be filed under “Faint Praise, Damning With”), and it does improve on the first film in several areas, but I think it’s a notch or two beneath it. But don’t get me wrong. This film is still one hilarious, demented trip.

There is speculation as to whether or not “ED2” is really a sequel or just a remake of the first one. Ash (Bruce Campbell) is at the same cabin, and he loses his girlfriend Linda to the evil curse that was unleashed by playing the tape of the Necronomicon scripture, turning her into another walking corpse. We see what might be a continuation of “Evil Dead’s” final shot of the camera swooping in on Ash the morning after the carnage. But the sequel/remake quandary falls by the wayside. All that matters is that Ash is trapped in this house, and he has to hold out until sunrise, which can keep the curse at bay.

Meanwhile, Anna Knowby (Sarah Berry), the daughter of the professor who found the book and made the recordings, is on her way to the cabin to find out what happened to her father, and along the way she runs into Jake (Dan Hicks), a local truck driver, and Bobby Joe (Kassie Wesley DePaiva), a local…they never really say, she’s just a moron. They end up going to the cabin with Anna to take part in the mayhem.

These two threads represent what is great and what is underwhelming about “Evil Dead 2.” What does work: Bruce Campbell as Ash. Ash gets more to do in this movie, and Campbell amps up the bug-eyed intensity that is uniquely his to the extreme. The scene early in the film where the curse takes possession of his hand is a flat-out marvel. Campbell puts on an astonishing display of physical comedy on par with Chaplin or Keaton. It’s the most perfect crystallization yet of Raimi’s melding of blood-soaked horror and “Three Stooges” comedy.

The bigger budget has unleashed Raimi as a director. The blood is literally shooting out of the walls, the special effects are dramatically improved (even though they haven’t aged particularly well), and the camerawork is more out-of-control than ever, with Steadicam shots moving at 100 mph and seemingly impossible angle shots. This is reckless imagination completely unfiltered.

But when the movie moves away from Ash and the madness and focuses on the other characters, the middle part of the film becomes a chore to watch. The three new characters and the actors who play them are pretty horrendous. The bad acting wasn’t a problem in the first movie, since it added to the crude, student-film atmosphere. But “Evil Dead 2,” for whatever reason, the bad acting sticks out even more, especially with Berry as Anna. The relationship they try to set up with her and Ash falls completely flat. Emotional cores are of little interest to Raimi and his co-writer Scott Spiegel. They want to keep the grungy, fly-by-night spirit of the first movie while making everything bigger and on a larger canvas. Those two things don’t always mesh, and all the cartoonish violence threatens to reach the tipping point. It doesn’t build suspense, everything but the kitchen sink gets thrown at you throughout the 84-minute run time. All the insanity may be exhausting to some.

Despite these flaws, Raimi and Campbell make a pretty wild team. It’s great to watch Ash transform from a scared hardware salesmen into a chainsaw-and-shotgun wielding badass. The dismemberment, monstrous transformations and even time travel collide in the film’s climax. “Evil Dead 2” doesn’t have the element of surprise that the first film had, this is still a wild ride. A filmmaker with lunatic sensibilities and an actor willing to follow are still, in Ash’s words, pretty “groovy.”

Grade: B+