Cannes 2011: Gus Van Sant makes one for the kids, and We Need to Talk About Kevin
Thu May 12 2011
When Gus Van Sant puts out a new movie, you go. You wait in long, long lines to see it. If you're at a film festival, you even brave a mob scene of ticket-holders and badge-wielding journalists that are practically spawning over each other like salmon to get into the press screening of it. While the scene outside of the Thtre Debussy was nowhere near the there's-a-riot-goin'-on levels of anarchy and bad behavior one has heard tales of regarding hot Cannes screenings (that'll come on Monday morning, when The Tree of Life is finally unveiled), the crush of cinephiles trying to shove their way into his latest, Restless, suggests that the director's fans—we'll call them Gusheads—had gathered en masse.
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What those of us who eventually got in realized very quickly, however, was that the title of this Un Certain Regard selection may be a little more apt than anyone could have realized. We've come to love the beautifully arty flights of fancy he delivers, and expect an oddly poetic perspective grafted on to material that initially seems beneath Van Sant, or at least totally alien to what he does best. When he can lift something like Good Will Hunting out of the After-School Special gulch and into the stratosphere, we're reminded of how rich the results it can be when a filmmaker injects his vision into something that otherwise verges on being rote. That transcendental sense never comes in Restless. All we're left with is another Young Adult film with a Tiger Beat--cute misfit and a stereotypical manic pixie dream girl, ambling down a Sundance-friendly path of self-conscious quirk that may inspire fidgety anxiousness in those over the age of 14.
That this story of a death-obsessed teen (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis) and the flighty, nutty young woman (Jane Eyre's Mia Wasikowska) who teaches him the joys of living was originally slated to play Sundance before going into release-date limbo is no surprise; you could see audiences there embracing such twee elements as a kamikaze-pilot ghost that plays board games with our hero. They'd probably also dig the fact that Wasikowska's character is a terminal cancer patient, all the better to dampen the Kleenex while uplifting the spirits. Look, every generation deserves its own Harold and Maude, but it's hard not to wish that Van Sant had done more than just compound the sweet and the moribund into a love story and left it at that. The man is capable of so much more, even with a slightly skewed, sap-filled story.
When Van Sant was here in 2003, he walked away with the Best Director and the Palme d'Or awards for Elephant, an elliptical look at a high-school shooting spree. Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher) coincidentally returns to that same subject with her own competition title, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and while you could see her winning the directing award, God help us if this takes the Palme. Rather than delve into the mechanics of the massacre itself, or even into the mentality of the young man who perpetrates it, Ramsay focuses more on the oft-asked question that hovers around these events: "What kind of parents bring a monster like this up?"
That would primarily be Eva (Tilda Swinton)—the name's resemblance to a certain Biblical character is assuredly not coincidental—a former free spirit. Once impregnated by her amiable if absent-minded husband (John C. Reilly), she seems to channel all of her resentment over being boxed into middle-class motherhood straight into her womb. The result is Kevin: a baby who never stops crying around her, a toddler who refuses to bond with his mom and later, a teenager (played by Afterschool's Ezra Miller) who essentially oozes malice out of every pimpled pore.
Those early scenes, in which Ramsay lays bare the dirty little secret about parenthood—it's often relentless, always taxing and can, occasionally, totally suck ass—are the film's best, with Swinton showing you what a broken soul looks like and the color red dominating the mise-en-scne in wonderfully unnerving ways. But it isn't long before Kevin starts to simplify its sociology about maternal frustration to dumbed-down basics, force its star to do a kabuki-theater take on post-tragedy pariahood and, worse, reduce its titular youth to a bad-seed clich. With Miller playing this devious, damaged kid as someone who always seems seconds away from twirling his mustache and tying somebody to the railroad tracks, the surprising thing is that his Kevin hadn't gone on a sociopathic rage much earlier. The returns begin to diminish exponentially by the halfway point, and with two disappointments from two great filmmakers in a row, the sense that the old guard might not be counted on to deliver the goods became a distinct possibility. Thankfully, there's are Dardenne brothers, Aldomovar and Malick movies on the horizon that may prove me wrong. Tout va bien.