Saturday, September 8, 2012

Roots of evil

You'll shoot your sister's eye out,  kid.
Finally, someone has made a good film inspired by Columbine, although We Need To Talk About Kevin (2012) is not about Columbine, nor, for that matter is Beautiful Boy (2010). Still, neither film would have been made but for that atrocity.  And the existence of both films illuminates the difference between solid professional craftsmanship and genuine art.

The central question of any such "Bad Seed" movie is whether evil proceeds from the parent, even at a distant, or whether it springs forth spontaneously in a given generation, leaving the parents and other ancestors scratching their heads, attributing evil to random, mutation, the malevolence of a fallen angel or perhaps God's own perversity.

Beautiful Boy, as I would probably do myself, throws its hands in the air and humbly confesses that it has no answers on the subject.  Instead, it is the portrait of a marriage under severe stress.  At the beginning of the film, the stress fractures are already evident, buttoned-up husband Michael Sheen has already asked wife Maria Bello for a divorce and the news that the couple's son has perpetrated a Virginia Tech-type attack seems likely to be fatal to the relationship.  Perversely, they are brought together by the stresses, especially the shunning and vituperation arriving at their doorstep as though they were collaborators in their son's terrible act.

The film's highlight is an acting dual tour de force when the couple has retreated to the anonymous safety of a motel to avoid the scrutiny and hatred of the mob and they pass through a cathartic variety of contributions, including moments of intimacy just short of those in Blue Valentine, and to similarly devastating effect.

But fine work as it is, the film is ultimately a doughnut, circling around its subject, but leaving a hole where there should be drama, or at very least reflection by the characters.   No attempt is made to show any connection between what the parents may have said or done at any time and their son's shooting spree.  It is perhaps meant to be ironic and telling that the final phone conversation with the son, shown in flashback, is mundane, if a bit distant, but in any event contains no foreshadowing of horror to come.  But it raises the question of why the filmmakers designed a story with a central impetus they are unwilling to examine anyway.  To say, "nobody knows where evil comes from" is a cop-out.  If that is so, why make a film about it?

The makers of We Have To Talk About Kevin had no such shyness, and the world was presumably forewarned, as the film is based on a widely-praised novel.  Irony is still on display, as the one thing nobody ever does is talk about Kevin, who really should have been talked about.  He is a Bad Seed, different from previous bad seeds in movie only for the plausibility of his evil, given both the story's less melodramatic scale and tone (compared to, say The Bad Seed, The Omen and similar titles) and by the horrific events of the last dozen years or so, which suggest a persistent subterranean collective psychosis among the nation's young.

Kevin is not afraid to stare into the abyss, at least in the person of his mother, played by the fearless, if not reckless, Tilda Swinton, whose character never wanted a child and resents the obligations of motherhood from the start.  The child's apparent psychopathology emerges as both a judgment on and a product of her indifferent child-rearing.  Honestly, when have the movies given us a bad mother who wasn't a Southern Gothic clown, or a straight-ahead Bad Witch?

The truth is that Kevin's evil stems directly from his desire to irritate and punish his mother, and whether that is cause or effect of her bad mothering is not clear.  And so, when he is incarcerated and robbed of power, she can love him, in one of the eeriest denouements in all of Bad Seed Cinema.

Other writers have pointed out Kevin's most striking cinematic accomplishment, the recasting of the novel's epistolary narrative structure (presumably by writer-director Lynne Ramsay) into a mosaic of flash-forward-and-backs into what is obviously a very carefully designed warp and woof of spiritual horror.  Color, especially red, is used to make connections between distant times and places.  (These places include a very confusing opening montage--I learned by reading online that what is being depicted is a tomato festival that is a cross between the running of the bull sin Pamplona and the Indian festival of Holi, when color is thrown at any and all persons.  It does show Kevin's future mother as a free spirit, but in my case, I had to seek outside help to decipher that sequence, which is not a good thing.)  The resulting cacophony of visual information is perhaps a better, deeper insight into Kevin's mother's mind than the novel's letters may have been -- the memory of images, after all, are pre-conscious, lacking the deliberation of a composed letter.

And Swinton seems to be redefining film acting over and over again.  It seems no accident that she resembles Buster Keaton, who inhabited film more than he appeared in it.  the same might be said for Swinton, who seems to work without self-awareness or self-consciousness, indifferent as to whether or not her character is sympathetic.  Like Keaton, the blanker she is, the better she is.  Wise is the filmmaker who eschews the condescending clarity of melodrama and leaves space for her audience.  OK, Ms. Ramsay, you go on the list.  I'm down for wherever you want to take me.

Still, the greatest Bad Seed film may still, however, be World's Greatest Dad, which truly comes to grips with the awfulness and spiritual void of parenting a truly terrible person and which, black comedy though it be, explores the lengths to which such a parent will go to seek solace for the consequences of their own unintended and perhaps even nonexistent crimes as parents.

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