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Adapted from a novel by the same name, Lynne Ramsay’s new film, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a chilling portrayal of a mother who is forced to ask herself the question no parent should ever have to: is my child a psychopath? The concept of breeding evil children is certainly not new to film and has been explored in The Omen, Children of the Corn and more recently, The Good Son. However, We Need to Talk About Kevin takes a fresh approach to the formula and not only focuses on Kevin’s (Ezra Miller) disturbing personality but also on the trauma a parent is forced to endure because of their offspring. One of the most disturbing ideas the film explores is the possibility of someone being born with an inherently evil personality rather than being shaped by external factors such as their upbringing and environment.

The film follows a dysfunctional family, Eva (Tilda Swinton), her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), their son Kevin and young daughter Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich). The story is mainly conveyed through Eva’s flashbacks and early scenes of her arriving at a crime scene foreshadow the events that eventually lead to tragedy. The tension between Eva and Franklin is exemplified early on, as she reluctantly agrees to put her career as a travel writer on hold and move to suburbia in order to start a family. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes clear to Eva that something is very wrong with Kevin and their relationship get substantially worse as the boy grows older. While Kevin displays intense hatred towards Eva and maliciously taunts her at every opportunity, he appears quite fond of his father. Kevin’s Jekyl/Hyde personality makes it ever more difficult for Eva to convince Franklin of their son’s psychotic tendencies. As the tension between Eva and Franklyn builds, Kevin’s frightening behaviour begins to spiral out of control.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is anchored around the magnificent performances of the delightfully strange Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller, who effectively embodies the cold-blooded and evil nature of Kevin. The film features some wonderful cinematography and an interesting art-house script, but mainly succeeds on the strength of the two aforementioned performances. Swinton masterfully channels Eva’s burden, anger, fear and sadness while Miller’s portrayal of Kevin is quite frightening. As strong as these performances are, the immensely talented John C. Reilly seems miscast as the naive husband, Franklin; I was never fully convinced of him and Swinton as a believable couple. Both Franklin and Kevin’s younger sister, Celia seemed like one-dimensional characters that were provided with very little screen time. However, the story is really about the relationship between Eva and Kevin; in this respect the film works extremely well. We Need to Talk About Kevin asks some very difficult questions and may strike fear into the heart of anyone considering becoming a parent, but the film is nevertheless worth seeing for Swinton and Miller’s exceptional performances as well as Ramsay’s unconventional method of storytelling.

7.8/10

Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is an ambitious and brave piece of work that I certainly admired but sadly couldn’t bring myself to fully enjoy. The film attempts to address the meaning of life by tracing the life of Jack O’Brian (Hunter McCracken/Sean Penn) and his relationship with his stern father (Brad Pitt), nurturing mother (Jessica Chastain) and younger brother.

The film cuts back and forth between Jack’s childhood upbringing in 1950’s suburban Texas and his seemingly melancholy adult self (Sean Penn) still attempting to come to grips with the death of his brother. In between all of this, Malick includes lengthy National Geographic style sequences featuring dinosaurs, sea creatures, microbes, cosmic eruptions and breathtaking nature imagery. Although I understood how these sequences tied into the film’s main storyline of creation and destruction, I couldn’t help but feel that they were distracting, obtrusive and at times overly lengthy. One can compare these vignettes to those in 2001: A Space Odyssey; however, the late Stanley Kubric somehow made it all work in a superior film.

The performances in the film are quite strong, especially Pitt’s portrayal of Mr. O’Brian, the often abusive yet loving father who’s character is symbolic of nature’s brutality and grace. Sadly, the performances can’t carry this picture above Malick’s fragmented style of storytelling which makes the audience feel like a distant observer travelling back and forth through time and space. We never feel completely invested in the characters or their stories simply because the film does not flesh them out (with the exception of Pitt’s character); all too often the script relies on visual imagery rather than dialogue, which makes the characters appear like an afterthought. I believe the film would have benefited from spending more time exploring Jack’s adult years. Instead, we are provided with a brief cameo from Sean Penn in which we are supposed to assume that Jack (now an architect) leads an unfulfilled yet financially successful life.

By the finale, rather than being enlightened, I was left feeling empty and quite frankly a bit bored. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy Terrence Malick’s work; I thought his underrated WWII drama, The Thin Red Line was in some ways superior to the more popular Saving Private Ryan, which was released during the same year. Nevertheless, despite its shortcomings, The Tree of Life deserves at least one viewing for its sheer scope and ambitious storytelling technique that attempts to tackle possibly the most important questions of all: how did we come to be and what is the meaning of our existence?

7/10

I can think of several words to describe director Steve McQueen’s powerful film, Shame, but as a whole, it was a haunting piece of work that stayed with me long after the credits rolled.  Make no mistake, this complicated character study is not for everyone; the film is extremely explicit in its portrayal of sexual addiction and builds slowly towards its powerful finale.  Like an onion, the ambiguous script asks the audience to peel away the film’s narrative layers in order to comprehend its deeper meaning.

The film follows Brendan (played by Michael Fassbender), a successful and handsome 30-something New Yorker who seemingly has it all. Brendan appears to have a well paying job, owns a spacious Manhattan condo with a stunning view, and attracts a slew of beautiful women with ease. Yet, something is amiss; Brendan spends his days fuelling his intense sex addiction and is incapable of forming personal relationships with anyone, including his own little sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Every aspect of this film represents the protagonist’s detached state, from its cold muted colour palette to the point-of-view shots where we experience the world through Brendan’s male gaze.

On the surface, it would appear that the film is simply about sex addiction since the script never fully reveals the cause behind Brendan’s obsession. However, it’s implied that both Sissy and Brendan are equally flawed and deeply affected by their past.

We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place.

Sissy says to Brendan during a heated argument. Brendan and Sissy bear a shame that looms large over their lives and deal with their scars in different ways, both of which are equally heartbreaking.

Shame has garnered mainly positive reviews from critics, especially because of Michael Fassbender’s courageous and brilliant performance (he was rightfully nominated for a Best Actor Golden Globe and certainly deserves to win). Yet, one of this year’s very best films has only managed to conjure up a 78% approval rating from popular review website and forum, Rotten Tomatoes and has largely gone unnoticed by moviegoers (many people I’ve talked to have never even heard of it).  This is possibly due to in part to the film’s explicit subject matter and its harsh NC-17 rating. Nevertheless, Shame deserves to be seen and talked about. This is without a doubt one the year’s best films.

9/10


Copyright © 2016 Alex Vainberg.