My Cannes 2011 began with a kind of American teenage death trip double feature: the world premieres of Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin, and Gus Van Sant's Restless.
The non-linear Kevin, based on a novel by Lionel Shriver, stars Tilda Swinton as Eve, the mother of Kevin (Ezra Miller), a teenage boy responsible for a rampage at his suburban high school. The film flows between Eve's dreary, post-incident present-day reality (data entry job, dirty dishes, booze, pills, panic attacks) and fragmented, hyperreal flashbacks to her old life as a glam travel writer (her actual work is never as well-defined as her asymmetrical haircut), and eventual wife to photographer Franklin (John C. Reily), raising two kids--Kevin has an angelic younger sister, Celia--in a cold, minimalist-modern Connecticut dream house. Kevin's pre-meditated killing spree changes everything, leaving Eve plagued by associative memories, forced to contemplate where she went wrong.
Is mother love--or lack thereof--innate, or socially constructed? Eve never forms a "normal" bond with her son, and while ominously plotting a progressively twisted mother-son relationship of call and response, Ramsay is ambiguous about whether Kevin's apparent evil is the product of nature, nurture, or a combination of the two. The filmmaker is much more direct when it comes to Eve's toxic relationship to her environment, establishing Eve's "otherness" in parenthood by setting Swinton's angular, other-worldly beauty against a landscape of killer kitsch: the soundtrack is wall-to-wall 50s country-blues and jukebox pop placed for acid irony against an insidious suburbia where pediatricians have what look like John Wayne Gacy clown paintings in exam rooms, and a public humiliation is backdropped by a supermarket endcap of generic tomato soup. The two actors who play Kevin as a child and adolescent, Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller, share Swinton's odd, androgynous charisma, amplifying the effect of mother and son as doppelgängers, adversaries to one another and yet united against the oppressive sameness of the rest of their world.
Kevin is strikingly subjective throughout, a testament to Ramsay's work with Werner Herzog's regular editor, Joe Bini. Eve's inner life and perception of reality are largely articulated through montage--not the seamless matching of music and moving imagery that's become Hollywood boilerplate for condensed time (see: Restless), but a discursive juxtaposition of imagery which demands active viewing. If Ramsay's music choices and art direction seek to redeem irony as a subversive stance and often fail, Bini manages to restore a sense of danger and provocation to one of the tritest tropes of conventional contemporary filmmaking.
If Kevin's structure is the basis of its occasional brilliance, it's ultimately also its Achilles heel. The elliptical, teasing nature of the narrative inevitably sets up a big finish. To her credit, Ramsay refuses to fetishize the story's most extreme acts of violence--remaining locked into Eve's point of view, we see only glimpses, some of them probably imagined. Ramsay saves the big, manipulative guns for a ludicrous concluding scene, in which one of the film's core questions is posed and answered in plain language, culminating in an emotional punctuation that feels like false closure. It's a cop out.
For all its flaws, at least Kevin is highly personalized and visually distinguished. The same cannot be said for the Brian Grazer-produced Restless, Van Sant's follow-up to the Oscar-winning Milk. The story of the doomed romance between a funeral-crashing rebel dreamboat (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis) and the terminally ill sprite (Mia Wasikowska) whose calm (if highly affected) stroll towards death teaches him a little something about life, is essentially a Nicolas Sparks flick given a Van Sant aesthetic makeover. It has Elliott Smith songs; gorgeous, grey toned Pacific Northwest cinematography by Harris Savides; and, in Hopper, a male ingenue whose ability to hold a close-up far exceeds the verisimilitude of his line readings. It's also a film with absolutely nothing on its mind, and sub-teen-TV quality dialogue (the script is the first produced screenplay by Jason Lew) that elicited chortles from some critics in Thursday morning's screening.
Van Sant, of course, has ample experience making movies about death and teenagers. Maybe too much--he seems to be on autopilot here, only really swinging when presented an opportunity to overly-aestheticize misery. There's one scene in which Hopper's huge tears seem to have their own key light.