Written by: Daniel McDonald
Somehow it didn’t register with me that there would be such a drought of any horror/thriller films at this time of the year (or should I say, any worth your time and dollars). It’s been a fairly good time (Summer into early Fall) for Horror surprises, good and bad. Though the amount of films was a bit limited, the quality of Lights Out, Don’t Breathe and Ouija: Origin of Evil was pretty damn swell! All three films were box office and critical surprises, leading to a false sense of security that whatever was coming our way next, would continue to be of high quality and scare potential.
Well along came Halloween and with it a film that many had pinned high hopes on to, Blair Witch. Partly because of its pedigree (love it or hate it, it the original was a cultural phenomenon) and partly due to the amazing job the producers and promotional team of the new film did of hiding it under the faux title, The Woods throughout production. When it was finally revealed by pedigreed horror maestro Adam Wingard that it was going to be a “balls to the wall” terrifying direct sequel to the original, the horror fan base practically went insane with expectation.
It’s interesting if you examine the manipulation of the media for both films. They each used fan bliss and the desire for something “new” in product but also promotion, the original was a computer driven “it’s a real story” sensation and the third installment (no one likes to speak of the unfairly maligned Blair Witch Two: Book of Shadows, which I found to be enjoyable on its own terms) blindsiding us with its fake identity pre- release reveal. I remember seeing an actual intentionally deceiving trailer for The Woods late in the summer. And then it was released…to wretched reviews and pitiful box office. So a film that was expected to be a big bucks, staying in movie houses for months winner, was gone with nary a week’s stay in some regions.
After that, a devoted but disappointed audience slightly recovered with the news that Naomi The Ring Watts was starring in a November release of a new horror/thriller called Shut In, which got healthy promotion and looked like it might “deliver the goods.” Unfortunately while Miss Watts’ performance was praised, the film was a total misfire (I actually guessed the plot’s non- surprise ending from the trailer alone). In what seemed like an instant, it was gone.
Which leads us to the present, a time for animated films, big budget war, or romantic sagas etc. So once again I turned to my Old friend Netflix. In the past I’ve tried to find appropriate, better than B quality films – of which there seems to be quite a bit – if you search them out. Last night, I came across a title that seemed familiar to me, but I knew I hadn’t seen it. With further research I remembered hearing and reading several critics discussing the fact that Tilda Swinton (a very talented, quirky and unique actress, one of my favorites) had been in a recently released (2011-12) film We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Several times it was said it was easily the high point of her rather eclectic, fascinating career thus far, and was a lock for a Best Actress Oscar nomination. When, in fact she didn’t get the Hollywood “nod” (her slot was filled by Rooney Mara for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), critics immediately said that not only should Miss Swinton have been nominated instead of Miss Mara, but several felt hers was the best performance of all of that year’s nominees.
Immediately the critical conversation turned to the fact that the film was so disturbing, so controversial and nasty, that it was far too intense and horrifying to be in any type of Oscar consideration. It also got sharply divided critical response and was a complete failure at the box office, getting a minimal US release and no promotional support. Well, having finally seen it, I think the main Achilles Heel was that no one had any idea what it was, or how to make its disturbingly horrible narrative accepted by a compartmentalizing modern audience.
Some issues seemed perfectly clear to me. It was said the Best Selling novel of the same name had been seen by many who thought a cinematic version of the story was unnecessary, being nothing but an adult horror film. Well, they were indeed quite correct. The story of a fading dysfunctional couple, Franklin (a very good John C. Riley and Eva (an unbelievably multi-layered, emotionally devastating Tilda Swinton) is seen in present day, and also in flashbacks, some real, some fantasized Intercut with a slowly growing, nerve frying present day event, the horror of which is revealed in pieces. Its tension is unnerving to the point of an actual adult horror film, posing mainly challenging questions. I suddenly became aware I was drifting into an Aronofsky Black Swan-ish world.
It seems the couple have a son, Kevin (played quite frighteningly as a toddler by Rock Dual, a confrontational adolescent by Jasper Newell and finally a15 year old smirking, vicious sociopath by Ezra Miller.) All three young actors were directed for maximum monstrous impact by Lynne Ramsay, who co-authored the adapted screenplay with Rory Stewart Kinnear. It seems Eva never formed any type of bond with her son (shown as a non-stop screaming and crying infant whenever he’s in her presence). The cinematography (Seamus McGreavy) and especially editing (Joe Bini) play very specific duties, helping Ramsay tell her non-linear story in clear, non-questioning ways. Johnny Greenwood’s score hits all of the (pun intended) right notes in accompanying onscreen visuals, not over whelming them.
There’s a wonderfully well-played scene of Eva taking the hysterical infant out for a stroll. Her tense emotional condition escalates to the point that she stands with the buggy next to an intensely loud jack hammering crew and shows utter relief as the jackhammer drowns out the shrieking infant. It’s a scene that in lesser hands could have been unintentionally comical, but Swinton’s raw, desperation gives one a feeling of the resentment, guilt and horror of this never ending plight. Scenes of her trying to build an attachment with the now toddler Kevin are equally as tense, making a simple game of throw and catch into a war of wills with Dual giving off some seriously “Son of Satan” looks and vibes. Compounding the stress and frustration is the fact Kevin seems to have no such problem with his father and new younger sister and is constantly torturing his mother by showing her he knows exactly what he’s doing.
Continually intercutting the scenes of Eva trying to get into the town high school and the reaction of towns people berating and bullying her in a future life all are beginning to converge into a more linear type of storytelling. A now 15 year old Kevin (played with marvelous specificity and a maniacally underlying sense of monstrousness by phenom, Ezra Miller, literally matching Swinton emotional blow after blow (she walks into the bathroom and catches him masturbating, he gives her an uncaring glance and continues as if she’s not there). Unseen, he takes his sister’s prized possession, a pet parakeet and in a terrifying scene, he sits casually with her while their mother is doing dishes. She turns on the garbage disposal which makes an awful grinding sound and suddenly, unseen by his sister, blood, feathers and bird guts bubble up in the drain. As Swinton tries desperately to clean it up, she turns and looks at her son, who sits back in his chair and smiles.
All of the trauma of which Eva seems to be the sole target, begins to take its toll on her relationship with her unseeing (but not unfeeling) husband. John C. Reilly’s naturalistic acting style balances well with Swinton’s volcanic rage (bubbling just under the surface for most of the film), erupting only when Kevin’s behavior is so horribly, slyly reprehensible that it breaks Eva’s walls of emotional defense and slight grasp of a normal life down.
Her present day life, relationships with her husband, psychiatrist and daughter are spinning out of control, and slowly we realize that, in addition to the unnatural dynamic with her son that grows stronger and stranger every day, she has seriously begun to shoulder the burden of how much of Kevin’s behavior could possibly be her fault. We are still unclear about the flashes of whatever happened to warrant the behavior of her neighbors and the townspeople, but Ramsay ratchets up the tension of Eva’s attempt to get to and into the high school where it’s clear that the payoff of whatever is going on is going to be huge.
One of the bonding events of Franklin and his son is the gift of a professional quality bow and arrow set for Christmas. The dual reaction of Kevin’s delight at both the gift and what it is doing to his horrified mother (another moment where Swinton’s ability to play both surface and sub-textural emotions is achingly apparent). When an off-screen event (thank God) results in her daughter being injured to the point of needing a glass eye (draw your own conclusions), things reach a boiling point.
To reveal any more narrative information would damage your viewing experience. Suffice it to say that Kevin’s final deeds are beyond atrocious, and in a one-on-one conversation where we hope Swinton’s character will ask the big questions and give herself (as well as us) some explanatory relief is simply non-conclusive. As usual, the masterful Swinton – matched by a devastatingly ambiguous Ezra Miller (this young man appearing next in Fantastic Beasts… is really one to watch, he is fascinating) give appropriate, non-answers, leaving the viewers to think, discuss and challenge the film’s final moments.
This film received multi-nominations in several worldwide competitions for Best Film. Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, Actress and Supporting Actor. The fact that it is indeed a thinking viewer’s Horror film (or thriller with monstrous characteristics) kept it from its deserved success, even recognition speaks volumes as to the comic book influenced cinematic world we’re living in. Nothing against our illustrated friends, it’s just so refreshing to shake hands with a heroine and villain like the two featured so chillingly here…I’m just saying….