Telluride 2011: 'We Need to Talk About Kevin' Shakes Up Audiences

Oscilloscope's Cannes acquisition will have to overcome the Academy's long-documented bias against horror films to become an Oscar player.

Everyone knows that the Academy has certain genre biases, and that one of their biggest is against horror films. Of those sorts of films, only The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and, one could argue, No Country for Old Men (2007), have won the best picture Oscar; a handful of others, like The Exorcist (1973) and Jaws (1975), have been nominated for it; and a precious few others have registered in the directing, acting, or writing categories.

Lynne Ramsey's We Need to Talk About Kevin, an adaptation of Lionel Shriver's novel of the same title that was acquired by Oscilloscope at the Cannes Film Festival in May, is not a "traditional" horror film -- it doesn't features monsters, aliens, or demons -- but it is every bit as disturbing as any that you could name, and might be said, metaphorically-speaking, to feature all three of those sorts of characters in the form of one: Kevin, a cold, calculating, and cruel kid (played by Jasper Newell as a child and by Ezra Miller as a teenager) who spends his childhood tormenting his mother Eva (Oscar winner Tilda Swinton) en route to becoming a savage serial killer.

I caught up with the film on Sunday evening, when it had its second stateside screening at the Telluride Film Festival immediately following a jovial tribute to Swinton, one of the most interesting and eccentric actresses in American cinema today. After the film ended, the mood was quite different: there was a smattering of applause, but most of the audience was either too stunned to react at all or rushed out of the theater to breathe for the first time since the movie started. The prevailing reaction to the film that I heard from others -- and that I essentially share myself -- was not that the film was "good" or "bad," but that it is just hard to understand why anyone ever wanted to make it in the first place. It's not a film with a message or lesson that I can discern; it's not a story that more than a few people can relate to; it's not a film that has much potential to make money; and it's not going to be an easy sell to awards voters.

FILM REVIEW: We Need to Talk About Kevin

While I don't know what motivated Ramsey to turn Shriver's novel into a screenplay (along with Rory Kinnear) and use it for her first feature film as a director in nine years, I do know why Oscilloscope took a chance on it and is pushing it (in conjunction with Cynthia Swartz's new company Strategy PR) this awards season: Swinton's performance. As always, Swinton makes the most of the material with which she has to work, subtly transitioning from a happy and adventurous woman in love with her husband (John C. Reilly) to a first-time mother showing signs of postpartum depression to a housewife who is left to deal with her son's inexplicably mean-spirited behavior all day (while her husband remains blissfully oblivious and gets treated differently) to a stricken shell of a person after her son's rampage. (Ramsey does deserve credit for showing these phases out of chronological order, a la Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's first three films, which makes audiences all the more curious to know how the film's characters wound up where they did.)

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If I thought that awards voters could stomach the film as a whole, then I'd say that Swinton might have a decent shot at a best actress nod, but I really have my doubts that they can -- plus they lacked the judgment to nominate her for either of her two most recent and better performances, in Julia (2008) and I Am Love (2010), which gives me further pause. I also heard advance buzz that Miller, 18, might be a threat to nab a best supporting actor nod, but I have a hard time seeing that happening, as well, because while some weirdos and bad guys have made the cut in that category in recent years -- think Edward Norton in Primal Fear (1996), Jackie Earle Haley in Little Children (2006), and Stanley Tucci in The Lovely Bones (2009) -- I just think that the character that he plays, however well he plays him, is just going to prove too hateful and reviling to most people. (Plus, for my money, little Newell was even better!)

Kevin will be showing again at the Toronto International Film Festival later this week. My guess is that it will follow a trajectory similar to the one followed by a TIFF entry from last year, Beautiful Boy (2011), which was also well-acted and dealt with very similar subject matter: it will earn pretty good reviews (Boy finished at 69% on Rotten Tomatoes), but general audiences will by-and-large avoid it (Boy made just $77,247 overall), and, fairly or not, awards voters will elect to focus their attention on films with stories that make them feel invigorated rather than depressed.