Lionel Shriver, Rory Stewart Kinnear, and Lynne Ramsay, 2011
#20, 2011 Skandies
This movie didn't look like my sort of thing, and it only checked in at #20, so normally I would have skipped it, but a few years back someone emailed me out of the blue and requested a writeup of it, so I figured I'd give it a look. The first half hour or so consists of a series of bravura sequences as the movie hops around in time showing vignettes from the life of a woman named Eva — crowd-surfing at La Tomatina, getting punched in the face by a stranger, visiting a prisoner who methodically bites off his fingernails — data points that we will eventually be able to slot into a framework, but which don't mean anything yet. This is a type of storytelling that I liked (and used) in the '90s, but these days I'm not a huge fan: I have a low tolerance for confusion. At least in prose the pieces tend to have some narrative content to them, but in movies we tend to just get shots, which go beyond "why do I care about this?" and into the realm of "what am I even looking at?" For instance, the first shot of Kevin is 35 seconds of a billowing curtain. At the end of the movie we will learn when in the story the protagonist is faced with this curtain and what lies beyond it, but at the beginning, it's 35 seconds of "why am I looking at a curtain?" and "why am I still looking at a curtain?" I recognize that film is a visual medium and that we're supposed to look at the shot of the curtain not just as a piece of the narrative puzzle but also much as we'd look at a painting in a museum. But a museum also allows us to decide how much time we're going to devote to looking at each piece. The guard doesn't walk up to us and say, "Hey! Keep looking at that one! Your 35 seconds aren't up!" "But it doesn't mean anything to me! I'm ready to move on!" "KEEP LOOKING!" (I guess the idea was to make us watch long enough that we'd remember the curtain when it reappeared at the end. Didn't work.)
This issue of sticking with something past the point that it's been established crops up on a macro level after the first half hour, when the movie changes gears and gives us a chronological account of Eva's relationship with her son Kevin from his birth until he's nearly eighteen. But this is just several iterations of the same cycle. The details change — at age zero Kevin drives Eva mad with screaming, at age seven he shits his pants on purpose knowing that Eva will have to clean him up, at age fourteen he poisons his kid sister with drain cleaner — but the thematic and character points are the same: Kevin is evil, Eva suffers, Kevin shows some small scrap of humanity, Eva feels guilty for her darker thoughts toward her own son and redoubles her efforts to show him love, Kevin turns out to have been manipulating her (because, as noted, Kevin is evil). The fact that only the details change suggests either that these details are supposed to matter or that Ramsay and company feel the need to hammer the thematic and character points over and over again long after they've been well established. My guess is that it's more the latter, since this is heavy-handed filmmaking in general. Like, lots of movies (and comics) make use of rhyming images, but in this one there might as well be subtitles screaming, "Look, LOOK! Tomato juice looks like red paint and they both look like BLOOD!" The songs that pop up on the soundtrack are equally unsubtle.
I'm talking about structure and style here because most of what I have to say about the themes of the movie will be covered in the books I'm working on (the rewritten Ready, Okay! and the Photopia novel). But I guess I'll say this. Kevin's little sister is played by Ashley Gerasimovich, who briefly played Jane on the TV show Louie before the amazing child prodigy Ursula Parker took over the role. I'm still working through season four of Louie, but in the one of the episodes I saw recently, Jane gets into trouble at school for attacking a teacher. Louie picks her up, and eventually they have this exchange:
|JANE||I don't want to go to school.|
|JANE||I mean it. I don't want to go there anymore. I don't like it. It's not good.|
They don't know anything.
They don't know how to tell me anything I need to know,
and they don't know anyway and they lie.
The teachers are stupid.
The kids are stupid.
They're all stupid.
I'm not just saying this, it's true.|
Christopher Columbus was a murderer and they want me to draw a picture of him smiling. They don't know how numbers work, and they want me to do it all wrong. The kids are just mean babies. They… don't know anything, really, and the teachers don't know anything — they're mean, and tired, and they're stupid, and they just say what's in the book. Because they don't know, you see. They don't know how to answer any real questions.
|LOUIE||They don't know how to answer what?|
|JANE||No real questions.|
|LOUIE||Like what, what's a, what kind of questions?|
|JANE||Like… why is there even an America? How come France isn't part of New York City? Why isn't, let's say, Africa or India in charge when they have the most people… and why isn't God on the news?|
That is the kind of exchange that, even though it involves a lot of misbehavior that needs to be corrected, really makes me want to have kids. Except it doesn't. It makes me want to have that kid. Like, I wanted to jump into my computer screen and, as her dad, explain to Jane how the U.S. came to be founded and introduce her to the chief arguments of Guns, Germs, and Steel. Seriously, when Jane started asking those questions there were heart-eyed emojis swimming around my head. The problem is, when you have kids you don't get to order up a Jane (much less an Ursula Parker). You get what you get, and you have to hope it doesn't destroy your life the way it destroys Eva's. And I'm not sure I like those odds.