Film review: We Need to Talk About Kevin and Warrior

by Fiona Rae / 03 March, 2012
Lynne Ramsay's film of the book, opening this week, is chilling, yet imbued with humanity, says Helene Wong.

If Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar hadn’t already convinced you of Lynne Ramsay’s ability to evoke deep character and buried emotion cinematically, We Need to Talk About Kevin will. She and co-writer Rory Stewart Kinnear have transformed Lionel Shriver’s novel into imagery that against all expectation finds visual poetry in guilt and anguish.

In deference to those who haven’t read the book, I won’t reveal the event that drives the film’s action. It’s not just a matter of spoiling the story; it will also spoil the appreciation of how the narrative is built and turned to keep that event unrevealed until the end, all the while dangling its mystery in front of us to play on feelings of suspense, dread, helplessness and sometimes hope.

What I can say is that it is an irredeemable act committed by 16-year-old Kevin (Ezra Miller), whose mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton), spends the next two years preoccupied with whether, or how much, she might be responsible for it. And we are right with her – no, inside her, because this is one of the most intense, extended point-of-view treatments in a long while. And that’s not a comparison with the queasy likes of, say, The Blair Witch Project – it’s a completely different, subtler dynamic.

In an elegantly fractured structure, Ramsay and editor Joe Bini juxtapose multiple time frames that follow Eva dealing with the aftermath in the present day while ransacking her memories for clues and causes that might explain what Kevin has done. In the process, we gather up backstory, but never chronologically – we have to work in the same way as Eva, piecing things together. And never through exposition – it’s all through what we see. The effect is just mesmerising (see, for example, the way Ramsay uses the colour red as a linking motif and emotional indicator), and you won’t want to miss a beat.

You also won’t take your eyes off Swinton. Wan and gaunt, she is a haunted, empty shell, struggling to cope with guilt and judgment she’s not sure she deserves. In the flashbacks, she’s only slightly less distant, a lone figure uncomfortable in her role as wife and mother. It’s a performance that suits Swinton’s sometimes alien looks, yet because we’re wrapped up so much with her point of view we remain fully sympathetic.

Miller brings an alien quality to Kevin, too, hinting at the strangeness of child characters in horror films while remaining recognisable to all parents in his stubbornness and uncommunicativeness. Jasper Newell and Rocky Duer, as the younger Kevins, are equally eerie.

Chilling, disturbing, yet imbued with humanity, this film raises questions about nature and nurture and arrives at no answers. Perhaps that’s a reality of parenting. But you come away feeling that, visually and emotionally at least, those questions have been thoroughly ­canvassed.

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, directed by Lynne Ramsay. Click here for theatres and times.

On the poster, Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton sport six-packs and look about to beat the crap out of each other. But the implied violence isn't that simple. They play brothers with a complicated past, which Warrior unravels to surprisingly powerful and moving effect.

Tommy Conlan – the ubiquitous Hardy (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, This Means War) – enlists his deadbeat father, Paddy (Nick Nolte), to prepare him for a tournament in mixed martial arts (that's kicking, wrestling and boxing). Elsewhere, estranged brother Brendan (Edgerton) is training for the same event. It's an outrageous coincidence to get them into the ring together, but as you learn through the measured release of backstory, character and relationship why each wants the $5 million purse, you forget the mechanics. By the climactic fight, the perfect metaphor for the sibling conflict, you're so soaked in its subtext of anger, hurt and betrayal that it's a finale that's exhilaratingly cathartic and healing.

Dialogue, cinematography and editing are stripped down, and the acting is pitch perfect and viscerally intense. I'm picking that Aussie Edgerton's career will benefit most.

WARRIOR, directed by Gavin O'Connor. Click here for theatres and times.

Click here for more reviews by Helene Wong.
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