Drive (2011)

Today’s cinema adventure: Drive, the slick 2011 crime thriller starring Ryan Gosling as a Hollywood stunt driver and mechanic who moonlights as a wheelman for high-dollar robberies; a highly marketable package featuring a lot of action and a little romance, which garnered much praise for its visual style- a glossy mix of 1980s-flavored grittiness and edgy contemporary flash- and drew controversy for its bursts of brutal violence.  Essentially a post-modern film noir, set in a seemingly lawless Los Angeles populated and controlled by ruthless criminals, it seethes with an atmosphere of cynical amorality in which life is cheap and trust is for suckers and fools; and yet for all its hip, hard-edged posing, this movie is, at its core, pure Hollywood fantasy of a decidedly old-school nature.  In essence, in fact, it’s a modernized, urban reworking of Shane, the revered and iconic western classic from 1953.  All the plot elements are there: a loner with a mysterious past befriends a struggling family and becomes their protector against the machinations of a powerful gang of thugs, eventually taking justice into his own hands and embarking on a one-man crusade to eliminate the threat once and for all.  Though the details have been modernized and reconfigured a bit, the structural blueprint is the same, from the dominant themes of family and justice vs. power and greed to the fact that its tarnished hero doesn’t carry a gun.

If noting this obvious parallel to a cinematic touchstone sounds like a negative criticism, it isn’t: many good films are built upon a framework borrowed from great films that came before, and although its plot line is clearly second-hand, Drive certainly re-interprets the story on its own terms.  Part of the credit lies with Hossein Amini’s terse screenplay (adapted from a book by James Sallis), which cleverly updates the details of the plot and its characters while retaining the essence of its central conflicts.  The foremost contributor to the success of this re-invention of cinematic myth, however, is director Nicholas Winding Refn, a Danish-born filmmaker whose lack of native familiarity with the distinctly American setting and milieu has allowed him to approach the material with the empirical eye of an observer.  One of the consequences of his outsider’s viewpoint is the superb use of the L.A. locale, so often taken for granted by resident directors; he takes full advantage of it, not so much in his depiction of specific landmarks, but in the way he captures the character of it, particularly the Echo Park district where much of the action takes place.  He also brings a detached objectivity that somehow adds to the emotional resonance of the story, helping it to feel freshly-minted despite the echoes of its heritage that bounce through every scene.  With the help of cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, he fully utilizes his locations to create an impressive visual coherence, infusing the squalid city streets with a slick, art-house sheen that echoes the feel of genre icons like Thief and To Live and Die in L.A. while still asserting Drive’s independence and modernity with its own up-to-the-minute, slo-mo/hi-res personality.  This effect is enhanced by the dreamlike electronic score by Cliff Martinez, which also facilitates the deliberate build-and-release of tension that pushes the film towards its inevitable conclusion.

On the business end of the camera is an attractive cast comprised of talented up-and-comers, seasoned veterans, and a strategically familiar collection of supporting players.  In the latter category are a trio of high-profile TV transplants: Christina Hendricks (compelling and memorable in a bad girl role that allows her to show a markedly different side than the one we see on Mad Men, but ultimately wasted in what amounts to little more than a cameo), Bryan Cranston (in a kinder, gentler variation of his Breaking Bad persona as Gosling’s employer and surrogate father figure), and Sons of Anarchy’s Ron Perlman (lending his star power and his imposing presence to a part that could otherwise be played by any tough-guy actor).  As the little family whose plight provides the catalyst for the film’s action are Oscar Isaacs (playing admirably against expectation as the ex-convict father striving to break free of his shady past, and nicely fleshing out a character which is ultimately little more than a plot device), young Kaden Leos (projecting a muted wisdom beyond his years and showing considerable onscreen chemistry with Gosling in their scenes together, which goes a long way towards providing the heart of the film), and English actress Carey Mulligan.  Mulligan has perhaps the most difficult role here, in which she is required to maintain a quiet, attractive nobility while navigating a complex subtext of resignation, repressed attraction and nagging fear.  She manages it well, inhabiting all those facets and bringing intelligence, sweetness, and dignity to the part (making it seem, perhaps, much more fully realized than it actually is), as well as creating her own chemistry with co-star Gosling; their scenes together are nearly wordless, for the most part, yet the pair infuses the silence with volumes of unspoken feeling, and when they finally kiss, the cumulative passion of their previous interactions is sufficiently powerful to warrant the highly cinematic approach with which director Refn chooses to showcase it.

Which, of course, brings us to our star: Gosling’s character (never named, but listed in the credits merely as “Driver”), like his cowboy counterpart in Shane, is rough-edged and dangerous, despite his All-American good looks and his quiet demeanor.  Yet, street-savvy thug or not, he is also possessed of a resolutely ethical core which drives him from within just as deliberately as he himself drives his own restored 1973 Malibu.  In order to successfully embody this urban paladin, Gosling must convincingly seem both too hard to be good and too good to be true- and he must do so with an amount of dialogue that can be described as sparing, at best.  He pulls it off brilliantly, managing to be believable on both ends of this extreme spectrum with a likeably stoic performance that is (appropriately enough) reminiscent of Steve McQueen at his anti-heroic best.  It’s a hypnotic performance, and watching the young actor confidently stand in the center of this film, it’s easy to see why he is one of the hottest leading men of the new Hollywood generation.

As good as Gosling is, though, the standout performance in Drive comes from a surprising source: Albert Brooks, known for his comedic work both as an actor and filmmaker, here plays against type as a ruthless gangster.  It’s a shrewd bit of casting, and Brooks takes full advantage of it, undercutting the cold-bloodedness of the character with his familiar, likeably nebbish persona; the result is a contrast between charm and menace that makes him easily one of the most chilling big-screen bad guys in recent memory.  Despite the impressive work of director Refn and the stellar turns of the other leading players, his performance is perhaps the one element of Drive which elevates it from the level of a well-made potboiler to that of a potential Hollywood classic.

As to that, only time will tell.  Drive has a dazzling quality that keeps you mesmerized while its subliminal elements do their work; fooled by the flashy surface, we fail to recognize that we are being shrewdly manipulated by the familiar undercurrents that pull our sympathies and shape our expectations.  As a result, we are more inclined to suspend our disbelief in the blatantly romantic premise at the core of the movie, a premise summed up in its tagline, “Some heroes are real;” or at least, in theory we should be.  Some viewers, however, may not be taken in by the smoke and mirrors, and may find they are unwilling to buy into a plot that, though appropriate for a larger-than-life epic of frontier justice and heroic gunslingers, seems decidedly unconvincing for a gritty tale of corruption and betrayal in the seedy urban underworld.  It should also be noted that, in spite of its family-friendly roots, this movie contains some very graphic and disturbing violence- in particular, an elevator scene (from which the aforementioned controversy resulted) that had to be edited into a toned-down version, and which is still shockingly gruesome- so more squeamish viewers should stand warned that they might want to stay away.  However, for most filmgoers- particularly those with an admiration for the nuts and bolts of the art- Drive will likely provide a rich experience, perhaps even more so for those savvy viewers who can recognize the archetypal formula from which it is derived.  Though its plot may hold few surprises (at least for anyone who has seen Shane), and though it may, in the final analysis, be unconvincing, there is still a fascination in seeing the ways in which Refn and his crew have molded it into its new form, and the attendant implications that arise from its transposition in setting, such as the differences (and similarities) in the portrayal of masculine and feminine roles, the metaphoric associations of our obsessive American car culture, and the difficulties of defining ethical behavior in a world complicated by conflicting moral standards.   Unacknowledged remake though it may be, it is nevertheless an inventive and original piece of filmmaking, and even if we already know where its taking us, it makes getting there an exhilarating ride.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0780504/

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Beginners (2011)

Today’s cinema adventure: Beginners, the 2011 romantic comedy/drama which garnered nearly universal critical acclaim and won multiple accolades and awards (including an Oscar) for supporting actor Christopher Plummer.  Heavily interweaving his narrative with flashbacks, filmmaker Mike Mills documents the efforts of Oliver, an L.A. graphic artist, to reconcile the memories of his childhood (and his grief over the recent death of his father) as he takes the tentative first steps towards a relationship with a young French actress.  Laced with clever, quirky humor, defying stereotypes and expectations at every turn, the film not only engages us with its charming story and likable characters but invites us to ponder the experiences of our own lives and our collective history, and how they provide us with the knowledge we need to grow and the foundation upon which to build a future beyond them.  Mills’ direction (from his own semi-autobiographical screenplay) is superb, moving the film freely between past and present, using its protagonist’s art to provide commentary and draw connections, and offering a wealth of “snapshot moments” which convey volumes about the characters and their lives without the need for extensive dialogue or exposition.  The filmmaker’s efforts would be pointless, however, if not for the superb cast, headed by the ever-lovable Ewan McGregor, giving a heart-breaking performance that manages to convey his character’s deep sadness without ever making him into a downer.  Melanie Laurent is equally effective as his new love interest- who is coping with parental issues of her own- and she, too, succeeds in maintaining both an attractive charm and a melancholy core.  But the most outstanding player here is Plummer, portraying Oliver’s father, a 75-year old man who comes out as gay following his wife’s death and embraces a new life, lived to the fullest, even as he faces his own terminal cancer.  This veteran actor is magnificent to watch as he captures the full spectrum of humanity, from the child-like glee he finds in exploring a world of which he has always dreamed to the dignity he maintains as he succumbs to the humiliation of his disease.  Fully deserving of all the accolades, it’s a performance that provides the strongest- but by no means the only- reason to see the film.  Los Angeles locals will also enjoy the Silverlake settings, lovingly captured by cinematographer Kasper Tuxen, which help to set the tone of Beginners– hip and quirky, but possessed with a keen awareness and respect for the past.  Mills’ film isn’t perfect: some would quibble that it borders on being overly precious, or that the characters’ troubles seem based on self-centered over-thinking and an arrested emotional development resulting from their insulated lifestyle.  However, this is a film about moving forward, about setting aside the emotional baggage of an imperfect past- while still honoring it- and finding the courage to face the challenges of an uncertain future.  In short, it’s a film about change, and therefore a film about fear- the kind of deeply personal fear which can make us all feel like children, no matter our age or background, and therefore cause our thinking and our behavior to seem immature from an outside standpoint.  Maturity comes with taking the leap towards something new, despite these deeply conditioned anxieties, and that is what each of the three principal characters in Beginners must do.  Frankly, I think it’s remarkable that a film addressing such a real and primal fear, and pervaded by such a tone of  bittersweet melancholy, can leave us feeling so charmed- perhaps that’s due to the fact that, above all, Beginners is a film about love, and given their emotional handicaps, if these people can make it work (and whether or not they can is by no means certain), then the rest of us can live in hope that we can, too.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1532503/

My Week With Marilyn (2011)

Today’s cinema adventure: My Week With Marilyn, the wistful 2011 biopic based on Colin Clark’s memoir, The Prince, the Showgirl, and Me, which detailed the author’s brief relationship with iconic starlet Marilyn Monroe during the turbulent filming of The Prince and the Showgirl with actor/director Sir Laurence Olivier.  Whereas many film biographies attempt to shed light on their subjects by presenting their life in its entirety, this charming true-life romance focuses instead on a short episode, using it as prism to cast insight into the legendary actress and her contemporaries.  As a result, the film has an intimacy and an authenticity lacking in most Hollywood bios, and the narrowing of focus allows the performers to explore the nuances of their real-life characters with much greater depth and detail, heightening the illusion that we are watching real people instead of the larger-than-life caricatures to which we are so often subjected.  Those performers, without exception, rise to the occasion: the entire ensemble clearly relishes its chance to embody this slice of mid-century mythology.  The much-lauded Michelle Williams is largely successful in capturing the enigmatic persona that made Marilyn the biggest star in the world; she gives us the contrasting blend of sensuality and insecurity we expect but infuses it with a humanity that allows us to perceive the underlying causes of her fragility and need for validation, as well as the irresistible charm that won the hearts of so many.  To be sure, her transformation is less than total- her physical attributes are not quite right, and her bearing sometimes seems mote timid than self-assured- but, of course, she is ultimately an actress interpreting a role, not a reincarnation, and as such she deserves much praise for conveying the essence of an oft-imitated woman who was, in fact, inimitable.   Less glamorous, but perhaps even more impressive, is Kenneth Branagh’s work as Olivier which likewise captures the great actor’s outward persona with remarkable accuracy while showing the inner landscape of a man struggling to keep his place at the top in the face of changing standards in the art he has mastered for so long; Olivier was not only an early mentor for Branagh but an actor with whom his own career has often been compared, so he seems well-suited to the daunting task of personifying the legendary thespian- a task which he clearly relishes, recreating Olivier’s physicality and vocal patterns with intimate familiarity with0ut resorting to out-and-out mimicry, and treating his subject with obvious respect even when portraying some of his less attractive facets.   As these two enact their clash of titans, they are surrounded by a host of worthy supporting performances, including Julia Ormond’s brief but canny portrayal of Vivien Leigh, Emma Watson’s decidedly non-Hermoine-esque turn as a wardrobe girl, and the always magisterial Dame Judi Dench as the always magisterial Dame Sybil Thorndike; but special praise should be reserved for Eddie Redmayne, who, stuck with the potentially thankless role of providing a foil for his co-stars, manages also to provide a solid ground for the proceedings by giving a quietly convincing performance as the young film crewman coming of age in the shadow of giants, and never lets us quite forget that this is, after all, his story.  With all this great acting going on, it’s easy to overlook the film’s other pleasures- the meticulous costume and scene design; the rich, golden-hued cinematography by Ben Smithard; the understated archness of the screenplay by Adrian Hodges- all overseen by the steady hand of first-time director Simon Curtis, whose wise approach here is to step back and let all these elements leave their marks without the unnecessary assistance of showy cinematic trickery.  The end result is a movie which, like the famous figure at its center, is lovely, effervescent, and hauntingly sad.  It does not promise nor does it try to present the final word on Marilyn- or Olivier, for that matter- and for that very reason, probably comes closer to giving us a truthful, fair vision of these two legends than any scandal-raking exposé could hope to deliver.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1655420/

Thor (2011) & Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

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Today’s cinema adventure is a double feature: Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, the two 2011 entries from Marvel that introduced audiences to seminal figures in the then-upcoming Avengers blockbuster, further establishing the groundwork begun in the successful Iron Man franchise and setting up key elements of the story arc which unites all the films.   In the first of the pair, Thor, heir to the throne of Asgard, is exiled by his angry father to the distant planet earth, precipitating a rebellion in his home world which threatens to wreak destructive havoc in both places; in the second, set during the second world war, scrawny weakling Steve Rogers is transformed by a secret government experiment into a super soldier who leads the battle against an insidious threat rising from within the ranks of the Nazi Reich.  The two films bookend each other nicely, thematically speaking: both feature heroes who rise to greatness, one by breaking through his own arrogance to find humility; and the other by holding on to his pure-hearted nature after being bestowed with super-human powers.  Both scenarios are familiar variations of the “Hero’s Journey” myth, and as such fit snugly into the comic book milieu from which the characters and their stories are drawn; and though the production teams for each film are, for the most part, comprised of different artists, under the guidance of Marvel and its mastermind, Stan Lee, both maintain a strong visual and thematic connection to the printed form of the source material.  Indeed, thanks to the heavy use of CG effects in creating the worlds of these films- which at times almost erases the line between animated and live action filmmaking- they seem like gigantic, moving comic books; the only thing missing is the presence of bubbles for the dialogue and thoughts of the characters.  This, of course, is precisely what the creators of these spectacles have intended; and on that level, they have succeeded in spades.  However, it is that candy-coated quality that handicaps both of these films, as well: in making the impossible come to life in such a clearly artificial setting, they distance us from the characters and the story, keeping us constantly reminded that what we are seeing has no real weight or consequence in our lives and preventing an emotional connection much in the way that Brechtian theatre-of-alienation tactics were designed to do; unfortunately, the purpose of that presentational technique was to provide a detachment that would allow an intellectual connection instead, and here, there is so little food for thought that the effect (for those not dazzled into submission by the visual trickery) is closer to boredom.  Between the two films, Thor fares somewhat better: though marginally more far-fetched in its content, the mythological connection provided by its use of Norse gods and goddesses as an integral part of the plot allows us, somehow, to more comfortably suspend our disbelief and buy into its premise of our world being caught up in a conflict of all-powerful titans.  Indeed, the storytelling aspect is strong enough- almost- to avoid being overwhelmed by the computer-rendered spectacle surrounding it, largely thanks to the direction of one-time Shakespearean golden-boy Kenneth Branagh, whose extensive experience with classical narratives makes him well-suited to the mythic themes in play.  Not so sure-handed at the helm is Joe Johnston, whose Captain America starts out well enough as it chronicles the eager young hero’s transformation, but then seems to move aimlessly through its progression of set pieces, content to rely on action and mood to keep us interested until it reaches the last one; rather than the unfolding of an archetypal tale, this second film feels instead like a piece of nostalgic fluff, a cliché-ridden WWII adventure souped-up with wish-fulfillment fantasy, trying painfully hard to avoid irony in its handling of the gee-whiz jingoism of its subject matter by masking it in nostalgia (mainly provided by the bathing of every scene in a golden-hued light in order to remind us that we are watching a story set in the 1940s).  This lack of real direction is exacerbated by the hollowness of the characters: whereas in Thor, the screenwriters (Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne) invest time and attention to the development the characters and their relationships, in Captain America the scribes (Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely) have relied on the familiarity of the stock types that populate their film, establishing identity with glib one-liners and giving mere lip service to the bonds and rivalries that determine their loyalties; in both, the players are little more to us than obligatory ciphers required to fulfill a formula, but at least in Thor, they have real personality.  The cast lists of both movies are dotted with ringers: such heavy hitters as Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgârd and Natalie Portman (Thor) and Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci and Hugo Weaving (Captain America) all add prestige and interest to the proceedings, and manage- with varying degrees of success- to elevate the material to a level that at least gives the illusion of substance.  As for the titular heroes, Chris Hemsworth as Thor does an adequate job of enacting his transformation from entitled blowhard to compassionate champion, and Chris Evans as the Captain manages to capture the right blend of sincerity and aloofness; but, perhaps partly due to the inherent limitations of the characters, both actors ultimately comes off as little more than eye candy (not that this is a bad thing- part of the traditional appeal of this kind of escapist entertainment is the beefcake factor).  The production of both movies, as mentioned before, is breathtaking, presenting us with glossy, hyper-real visions of the Marvel Universe; united by cohesive production design (Bo Welch for Thor, Rick Heinrichs for Captain America), they continually wow us with movie magic that reminds us of how far we’ve come from the days of actors hanging on wires in front of projected skyscapes.  The musical scores, provided by Patrick Doyle (director Branagh’s long-time collaborator) on Thor and Alan Silvestri on Captain America, are appropriately stirring.  In fact, every technical aspect of both films is top-notch, Grade-A, best-of-Hollywood stuff; but ultimately, though Thor has its strengths, they both come up short in the long run, big on style and spectacle, but lacking in the kind of genuine depth that can make movies of this genre into a more meaningful experience.  There is certainly entertainment value here, but even that seems strangely lacking; both pieces feel more like prologues (which they are) than stand-on-their-own experiences, setting the stage for things to come and somehow failing to provide the satisfaction of real closure.  Of course, this is the nature of comic books- each segment ends in a cliff-hanger, ensuring that the reader will rush out to buy the next edition as soon as it is available.  Thankfully, in this case the next edition is The Avengers, which succeeds where these two predecessors have not- but that’s another review.

Thor http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0800369/

Captain America: The First Avenger http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0458339/

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Young Adult (2011)

Today’s cinema adventure: Young Adult, the 2011 feature by writer Diablo Cody (Juno) and director Jason Reitman (Up in the Air).  Charlize Theron stars as Mavis, a hard-drinking thirty-something writer of teen romance novels, who attempts to resolve her fractured emotional life by returning to her small hometown and stealing her former high school sweetheart away from his wife and infant daughter.  Ostensibly a dark comedy, this piece is in fact a character study- and a bleak one- which hinges on the performance of Theron as its central character, and she rises brilliantly to the occasion.  The actress won an Oscar for playing a serial killer in Monster, and she equals that work here with her portrait of another kind of “monster,” an alcoholic whose arrested emotional development has her teetering on the brink of self-destruction, trying to use prom queen tactics in a grown-up world and unconcerned with the havoc she wreaks on the lives of those around her; but, even as Mavis’ downward spiral becomes increasingly embarrassing and her behavior grows more and more hateful, Theron succeeds in capturing the spark of humanity that allows us to see through the affectation and attitude to which she so desperately clings, and makes it possible, if not to sympathize with her, at least to understand her- and, a little unsettlingly, even to relate to her.  Providing a counterpoint to Mavis’ delusional shenanigans is Patton Oswalt, as an old schoolmate (disabled by a savage beating which may have been at least partly her fault) whose ability to see through her façade makes him both an antagonist and an unlikely ally; he delivers an unsentimental performance that keeps the character likeable while still underlining the dysfunctions that affect his own broken life.  Patrick Wilson, as the object of Mavis’ obsessions, is cast once more as the stolid-but-faded golden boy, a part which he fills to a tee- though it would have been nice to see his character laced with a little more of the darkness he has so brilliantly essayed in similar roles (Angels in America, Little Children, Watchmen).  The remainder of the cast is largely relegated to the background, where they serve as foils for the one-woman-show they surround; indeed, one of the film’s most significant characters is the scenery itself, an authentically realized small-town suburbia full of the bland and familiar icons of Middle American life, which provides a constant reminder of the comforting-and-maddening mediocrity from which- or to which- so many of us wish to escape.  As for the work of the film’s masterminds, Cody’s screenplay is full of the kind of edgy hipster irony we have come to expect from her, infusing the dialogue with a double-edged wit that makes us cringe even as we chuckle; and Reitman’s direction displays his easy skill with visual storytelling, effortlessly blending revelatory character detail and thematic reinforcement within the straight-and-steady unfolding of the narrative.  It should be said, however, that Young Adult, though strong on observation, comes up a bit short when it comes to insight; in the end, despite the exposure of numerous key moments in Mavis’ life, we are really no closer to understanding what makes her tick.  Still, perhaps it is wrong to expect easy answers in a story about an alcoholic’s decline; and even though Young Adult  lacks the disarming freshness of Juno or the unexpected emotional resonance of Up in the Air, both its creators deserve considerable praise for making a film brave enough to favor realism over sentiment by refusing to redeem or resolve.  Though there are plenty of genuine laughs here (albeit somewhat morbid ones), this film is not for the squeamish; the rest of us, however, will be refreshed by the rare honesty behind it- and rewarded by the magnificent performance of its leading player, who continues to prove that, as beautiful as she is, it is her talent that makes her a star.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1625346/

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

Today’s cinema adventure: We Need to Talk About Kevin, the disturbing and controversial 2011 feature based on Lionel Shriver’s award-winning 2003 novel of the same name.  Tilda Swinton stars as Eva, a woman haunted by memories and repercussions as she attempts to come to terms with the horrific acts committed by her teenaged son.  As directed by BAFTA-winner Lynne Ramsay, the film draws us in from its very first moments with arresting visuals and an enigmatic soundscape, unfolding its nightmarish story through a non-sequential progression of scenes and images that gradually piece together like the shattered fragments of Eva’s life. It’s riveting stuff: Ramsay (who also co-wrote the screenplay with husband Rory Kinnear) keeps us engaged and unsettled throughout, saturating us with stylish imagery marked by an ingenious use of color (with a decided emphasis on red, maintaining an ever-present suggestion of blood), layering in just enough foreshadowing and clues to conjure a growing sense of dread over the inevitable conclusion, infusing each scene with an atmosphere of resigned melancholy and foreboding, and dominating the proceedings with an uneasy silence which is only broken by spare, terse dialogue that shocks and pierces as much as it informs.  As we observe Eva’s disjointed recollections and her nightmarishly surreal day-to-day life, we find ourselves drawn into her psyche; forced to face the uncomfortable- and unanswerable- questions raised about the culpability of a parent in the wrongs committed by their offspring; and in the end, the biggest question may be how to find a resolution, a sense of closure which can permit the lives of those left standing to go on-  and if, indeed, such a thing is even possible.  With all these psychological themes in play, one might be tempted to consider We Need to Talk About Kevin to be a complex drama, but make no mistake about it: this is unquestionably a horror film, the kind of nightmarish thriller that is rarely made these days.  It follows no pre-molded formula, and there are none of the expected clichés of the genre: no sudden shocks, no scantily-clad female victims screaming as they flee through the dark night, no oceans of gore (for all the red flowing across our eyes, there is very little blood or violence onscreen, with Ramsay opting instead to paint the horrible pictures in our imagination where they are infinitely more disturbing).  This is not some schlocky shocker designed for a teenagers’ date night, but rather, like other great adult horror films of the past such as The Exorcist or Rosemary’s Baby, it is an exploration of evil in our lives, of how it manifests and what might be its causes; but unlike the aforementioned classics, there is no suggestion here of supernatural forces- the responsibility is placed squarely on human shoulders, with implications that are far more chilling than the presence of any demonic scapegoat.  It would be easy, in the wrong hands, for Kevin to veer off into the realm of exploitative trash; but not only is Ramsay well-equipped for the task, she has the considerable benefit of Tilda Swinton in the central role.  Swinton has proven many times that she is one of the most electrifying screen performers working today, and here she solidifies that reputation with a stunning, solid portrayal of a woman for whom the joy of motherhood has been inverted into a nightmare.  With a minimum of dialogue, she conveys Eva’s harrowing journey with masterfully subtle changes in her continuous expression of dull shock, bringing home the frustration, the terror, and the loneliness created by the growing comprehension that her child is a monster and she alone can see it.  It’s a tour-de-force performance, and its failure to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress- particularly when it was recognized by virtually every other major awards organization- was surely one of the great injustices of Oscar history.  Supporting Swinton’s magnificence is John C. Reilly, likeable but obtuse as Eva’s husband, a man whose doting denial helps to enable the ever-escalating sociopathy of their son and drives an immovable wedge into their marriage; and a shining turn by Ezra Miller as the title character, who skillfully avoids the temptation of playing for sympathy- this is no misunderstood, angst-ridden adolescent, but a young cobra smugly and gleefully coiling up for a fatal strike.  Mention is also deserved for Jasper Newell, as the six-to-eight year-old Kevin, who eerily projects a malicious menace beyond his years, somehow making the younger incarnation even more frightening than his future self.  In addition to the stellar cast, Ramsay is aided in her vision by superb work from her technical collaborators: an eerie and atmospheric score by Johnny Greenwood (of Radiohead) meshes seamlessly with the carefully orchestrated sound design by Paul Davies; the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey provides some of the most vividly realized images in recent film memory, into which the simple-yet-striking costume design of Catherine George is brilliantly coordinated; and the editing by Joe Bini is a masterpiece of visual juggling, managing to maintain a steady flow throughout a narrative which freely jumps forward and back to multiple periods in time.  It is a shame- but not a surprise- that We Need to Talk About Kevin has yet to recoup the $7 million that was spent to make it; you can chalk it up as yet another sign that the contemporary film market is driven by an increasingly less sophisticated mindset, but this would be a difficult film to sell in any era, really.  It is a psychological thriller that dares to address deeply disturbing issues which most of us would prefer to keep out of sight and out of mind, and watching it is a grim and unrelenting experience which may leave you disturbed for days afterward.  If that sounds as good to you as it does to me, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a film you must not miss.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1242460/