Well, I’m beyond being unfashionably late to the party. By rights, I have offended the hosts, embarrassed myself and potentially brought a downer on the whole soirée. So let me make immediate reparations for being terribly overdue by loudly proclaiming Lynne Ramsay one of my favourite current film makers. And possibly my favourite of all time.
Yes, until a week or so ago, I had never seen one of her films. Shame on me! Of course, I was aware of Ramsay’s reputation amongst cinemas aficionados. Naturally, her work was on the list of ‘films to see before you die’. Unfortunately for me, this list is ever growing, whilst my free time (and life span…) seems to be dissipating nearly as quickly as the years seem to past. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine we’re getting so close to 2019, the year in which Harrison Ford is destined to be chasing replicants around an 80’s style neo-noirish Los Angeles. Yesterdays scif-fi is soon to be overtaken by our present, which in a strange way brings me back to Lynne Ramsay. I was listening to an podcast interview between her and the film critic Mark Kermode, during which she revealed her next project would be a sci-fi version of MOBY DICK. The idea of a highly celebrated ‘real’ film maker crossing the floor to work on a genre film never fails to intrigue me. She wouldn’t be the first to do so, of course. Kubrick with THE SHINING, Cuarón with CHILDREN OF MEN, Boyle on SUNSHINE and 28 DAYS LATER. Then there’s Coppolla’s take on DRACULA… Actually, perhaps we can forget that last example. Alternatively, we could just stake the fucker in the heart and leave it out to melt in the sun. (I digress…)
So anyway… Now I knew Ramsay was working on a sci-fi film, I had to catch up. What kind of arsehole doesn’t watch the work of someone so highly praised as a visual film maker, with a fantastic ear for sound design, who is about to set her next film in outer space, with a sodding alien, as an adaptation of a literary classic? I mean, come on! What the hell am I playing at? A marathon viewing ensued of her three feature films to date. I’m still scraping my jaw of the floor.
Whilst RATCATCHER and MORVERN CALLAR were both a treat, I was most impressed with her latest work, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN.
With a gap of 9 years between KEVIN and MORVERN CALLAR, Ramsay had taken an extended leave from film making, due in part to her unsuccessful attempt to develop and film Alice Seobold’s novel THE LOVELY BONES, later filmed by Peter Jackson (the result was a rare occurrence for me… it was a film I turned off half way through.). I can only assume that this extended absence from our cinema screens reinvigorated and energised her. KEVIN (written by Ramsay and her husband, Rory Kinnear) is a stunning piece of work, a shifting, twisting tapestry of images, weaving in a powerful sonic melange. Ramsay uses every trick in the book to tell this disturbing horror film about guilt and recrimination. That’s right, it’s a horror film, clear proof a film maker can work in genre without forgoing quality and craft. Indeed, as mentioned, this is Ramsay’s best film to date.
The story concerns Eva Khatchadourian, played to masterful effect by the wonderful Tilda Swinton. Eva is haunted by a personal tragedy in her family, an atrocity that has left her a pariah, seemingly despised by many of her neighbours and co-workers. The root cause of this grief appears to be the troubled relationship she endures with Kevin, her creepy, disturbed teenage son (an amazing performance from Ezra Miller, with a special nod to the two other kids playing the character at a younger age. Truly terrifying and a convincing trio of little diablo’s!). Kevin has been a problem for her since his birth, whilst Eva’s partner Franklin (John C Reilly) seems oblivious to the troubling relationship between son and an increasingly haunted mother. From the start, the film suggests Kevin is the perpetrator of an unseen tragedy, with the narrative playing out as fractured memories, a troubled Eva tormenting herself over her (possibly imagined) complicity with the actions of her child. A dark film that dares to ask… What if a mother doesn’t love her son? Is the disconnect between them the cause of the child’s troubling nature? Or was he born evil, impossible for a mother to love? The film reflects on these questions, satisfying the audience with some resolution, but leaving enough ambiguity to the story for us to consider our own answers.
In casting Ezra Miller for Kevin, Ramsay had discovered someone whom she found both “attractive and repellent, seemingly sucking the atmosphere out of the room.” Miller achieves that rare thing, he makes a vacuum appear interesting. An intelligent void of a character that draws the audience in, even as the character delights in tormenting his mother. Yet throughout the story, Ramsay makes use of mirror imagery and refections to suggest a casual link between her son’s attitude and Eva’s taboo dislike for her first born. Whilst Eva believes herself to be complicit in the actions of her son, the film is smart enough to suggest some ambiguity about the true nature of events.
Ramsay herself describes the film as a story about a woman piecing together different aspects of her past, “filtered through her eyes, about her own guilt and responsibility”. We she her inner turmoil, how her guilt is punishing, perhaps twisting her memories and perceived failings, tormenting herself for birthing a child she thinks is evil.
Whilst Eva believes herself guilty, it’s possible her character is a classic example of an unreliable narrator. Indeed, it’s possible to interpret Ramsay’s two previous films as having protagonists who present themselves in a poetic, rather than a literal sense. For me, Morvern Callar didn’t literally hack her boyfriend up in a bath and pass of his novel as her own. Her boyfriend left her, she had to deal with the “baggage” he left behind. The experience inspired her to write, his ‘death’ leaving behind a novel. What makes KEVIN a better film than her previous work is that every interpretation you can make of the story works equally as well as any other. I liked MORVERN CALLAR, but the film works best if you believe Samantha Morton’s character didn’t magically get away with dismemberment of a missing person. KEVIN is strong enough to withstand any interpretation the audience wishes to attribute to the story. This flexibility of interpretation is a rare thing, truly indicative of a masterful work.
Lensed by Seamus McGarvey, the film is a visual treat, with the constant use of tomato pulp, red paint, jam and blood to foreshadow the grim events in Kevin’s near future. The effect is often hallucinatory, almost Argento-esque, such as the opening montage of images and sound as Eva awakens on her sofa, her windows splattered red with a vigilantes red paint, staining crimson the light streaming into the room. Mark Kermode described the film inhabiting a “painterly netherworld pitched somewhere between the subtle hues of European psychodrama and the bolder strokes of populist paedophobic horror.”
Indeed, Ramsay appears to know her horror films. Beginning with the SUSPIRIA styled start, Eva’s state of mind over her guilt is underscored with the charnel roar of a heavy duty, offscreen power tool. Later, we learn the significance of this sound, and the true identity of the tool. But on the first viewing I mistook this for a chainsaw, something I believe was intended by the director. The effect remains the same, evoking the throaty rip of one of horror cinemas arboriculturist icons. This use of exaggerated sounds effects are a hallmark of Ramsay’s work, but in KEVIN they’ve been pushed even further, reminded me of Fulici and Argento’s post dubbed nightmares.
Other examples of classic horror iconography include the use of a sinister clown in a painting, hanging from the wall of a paediatricians office. Bow tie the colour of blood, smile a malevolent slash. Also, the images and sound used during Kevin’s conception (microscopic cellular activity cut with shots of a distraught and distant Eva photocopying) have a rhythmic, ritualistic quality to them. An evocation of some terrible evil, a summoning ritual of some hellish, devil spawned demon. Then there’s the home invasion horror Eva imagines on Halloween night, her house “besieged” by trick or treaters, an example of Kermodes’s “paedophobic horror”. Later on, when we see the family driving out to their castle in the suburbs, the score echoes John Carpenters HALLOWEEN soundtrack. This 1970‘s tale of the sibling slaying Michael Myers is an appropriate reference, the house being ground zero for the families ultimate doom. There’s an older callback to horror history’s grim past when a theremin plays over the soundtrack as the family car pulls past the lawn sprinklers…
The film sustains the feeling of a zoloft enthused freakout throughout, the sound design spiking the hallucinogenic visuals, crafting a discombobulating phantasmagoria. On a number of occasions, we see Eva scrubbing red from her hands, be it paint or garbage grinder guinea pig blood. Eva’s everyday reality becomes intertwined with her memories, perhaps distorted by her guilt, possible suffering from some kind of Lady Macbeth complex, if you will. The narrative moves towards the revelation of a terrible atrocity, yet keeps a distance from any gruesome detail. The film isn’t about the event, its about Eva’s feelings of culpability and recrimination, weaving back and forth between the past and present.
Whilst KEVIN is her most stylistic film to date, Ramsay has always employed fantastical sound and images to great effect, enhancing and amplifying natural sounds to create internal soundscapes, informing on her characters state of mind. Ramsay is smart enough to let her pictures and audio tell the story, leaving dialogue to a Clint Eastwoodian minimum.
KEVIN is an amazing effort, topping off an already impressive body of work. I still have her short films to catch up on, but like Ramsay, I’m looking towards to the future rather than the past. With plans to film a sci-fi film next, Ramsay’s eagerness to work within a genre often derided and scorned by many within the film industries intelligentsia fills me with hope.
Genre films are an important part of any healthy film industry, a sector long neglected to the detriment of everyone trying to make their way through the British film industry. Why is genre so important, so worthy of defence? I’ve covered horror films before, but in the case of science fiction, it provides visualist film makers with an impressive canvas to paint on. A chance to go wild! A whole new set of toys to play with. For a director like Ramsay, the fantastical imagery you can get away with in sci-fi story can be used to create a positive distancing effect. This allows room for interpretation, allowing the audience to play around with suggested ideas, rather than enduring a straight lecture. This can also enable the introduction of complex ideas to an audience which may be resilient to issue driven stories. Examples include the socio-economic critique on fossil fuel dependence in Frank Herbert’s DUNE novels, the nightmare of totalitarianism in 1984 and the film version of CHILDREN OF MEN. Indeed, the latter seems to be a greatest hits of issues from the last 20 years, from fears of disease, plague, pollution, up to and including the divide caused by the war on terror. Clearly, even distant worlds can tell us a lot about the one we live on today.
Also, it’s a popular format, especially with teenagers. Why not give them something homegrown to consume, rather than the identikit superhero films churned out from across the Atlantic? We need to make all kinds of films that cross the varying boundaries of taste and preference. There’s more to British story telling than kitchen sink social issue tales, mockney cockney crime knees ups and Jane Austen frock flicks. We need to engage an audience that perhaps has never enjoyed a British film, both at home and overseas. Engaging their curiosity in subjects closer to their current preferences will lead many of them on to more weighty, worthy work. Certainly, that’s what happened to me when I was a kid.
But most of all, I believe science fiction is becoming increasingly relevant in our day to day lives. Technology is progressing at such a rate that yesterdays sci-fi becomes tomorrows social issues drama. Genetic modification and cybernetics we’re once fantasy, yet recently I read that some scientists had isolated the gene that blocks nerve reconstruction – a major step in fighting paralysis. We have a robot exploring Mars, and drones in the skies over warzones. Pretty soon, we shall have commercial space flight. As our resources dwindle, serious attention is being paid to exploiting the mineral resources beyond our planet. Increasingly, science fiction is being usurped by the factual. We’re living one step away from the future, with all kinds of moral and social questions to address. If we’re going to think about where we are going, we need to think ahead. Science fiction is the only form of story telling that can do this.
No doubt, some will criticise Lynne Ramsay for indulging with genre, eagerly awaiting her return to ‘real’ film making. They’re wrong. Working in genre opens up our creative storytellers to a universe of possibilities, a receptive audience and a thriving national film industry.
Stepping away from the speculative future and back into the shadowy gloom of the horror genre, Ramsay’s telling of this particular Bad Seed is a masterful first step into genre film making. Completely devoid of any waste or excess, every moment of this film amazes. Disturbing, yet strangely heartwarming by the end, WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is every parents perfect nightmare, one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time.
Whatever happens in the years and decades to come, I am certain that Lynne Ramsay will play an important part in future of the British film industry.