Essay: ‘Kevin’ and ‘Undefeated’ and the wages of solitude


HANDOUT: Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly in WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN. (Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories )

“Here it is, guys. Our very own castle.”

Those offhanded but pointedly fateful words are spoken by John C. Reilly in “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” Lynne Ramsay’s bold, unnerving adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel.

Reilly plays Franklin, a good-natured husband and father who is showing his wife Eva (Tilda Swinton) and their young son Kevin (Jasper Newell) a sprawling new house he’s purchased in the suburbs. Eva, a free spirit and committed Manhattanite, is clearly discomfited by the sterile, too-perfect pseudo-mansion, which in the course of the film never loses the polished gleam of a stage set. True to her misgivings, carnage both metaphorical and literal will ensue in the wake of the family’s rustication — most of it hidden behind the house’s clipped greensward of a lawn, at least until it reaches a point of explosive, tragic critical mass.

Although “We Need to Talk About Kevin” focuses on Eva’s story — given steely life by Swinton’s haunted, uncompromising performance — it’s Franklin’s words about the castle that have taken on new meaning over the past few days, first when news broke about a fatal high school shooting in Chardon, Ohio, and then while watching a documentary called “Undefeated.”

Anyone familiar with the plot of Shriver’s novel recognizes the eerie coincidence of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” opening just days after the Ohio shooting, which claimed three lives and for which a 17-year-old student named T.J. Lane has been charged. But fans of of the book also know that Shriver’s rigorous, lucid, searingly perceptive story is about school violence the same way “Moby Dick” is about fishing. As Ramsay’s graphic, almost abstract adaptation makes clear, Eva’s story — which pivots around her failure to bond with Kevin as an infant — becomes inevitably tangled up in ambivalence, shame and self-deception.

It’s precisely that sense of self-deception that Franklin embodies when he buys the family “castle,” in the hopes that the signs of trouble that Kevin has been evincing as a child — the lack of empathy, the manipulativeness, the almost pathological defiance — are simply symptoms of cramped New York life. Like so many jaded urban dwellers, he’s convinced that once he, Eva and Kevin decamp for more bucolic climes, their hard-wired natures will follow suit.

Instead, the cavernous, light-filled house where most of the psychic warfare takes place in “We Need to Talk About Kevin” becomes a looming symbol of Eva’s isolation. And her aloneness begins to assume the contours of quiet desperation as she tries in vain to get Franklin to acknowledge the emotional problems bedevilling Kevin, played as a creepy, cold-eyed teenager by Ezra Miller. With no neighbors nearby or friends to speak of, Eva is almost completely on her own throughout the movie, which grows in its sense of dread as Eva fights a futile battle to have her reality validated.

The picture of Eva’s solitary suffering was what came back so strongly as details of the Ohio shooting emerged, especially regarding T.J. Lane’s life with his grandparents. By all accounts, Lane enjoyed a warm and loving home with the elderly couple. But their family occasionally veered into crisis, with the couple sometimes calling the police to help them with T.J.’s troubled older brother. If filmgoers watch “We Need to Talk About Kevin” through the lens of this past week’s news, they may find themselves reflecting on whether anyone can ever know what’s going on behind neatly painted doors and manicured lawns.

That same question is posed — and answered far more encouragingly — in “Undefeated,” which arrives in Washington fresh from winning the documentary Oscar on Sunday. Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin’s stirring, emotional portrait of a high school football team in the impoverished neighborhood of North Memphis, Tenn., obeys all the governing conventions of such a tale, with a team of ragtag underdogs known as the Manassas Tigers overcoming broken homes, poverty, injuries and personal demons to make a “Moneyball”-esque run at the playoffs.

In yet another coincidence, “Undefeated” also features the exact same kind of big, neatly kept, carefully maintained suburban homes that Eva inhabits in “We Need to Talk About Kevin," the kind of real-estate status symbols ungenerous critics might call McMansions. But in “Undefeated,” these citadels of middle class security and safety don’t hide the lives of troubled teens. Instead, they’re thrown open to create a space of compassion, trust and community.

Volunteer football coach Bill Courtney — a prosperous businessman who sacrifices his relationship with his own kids to coach the fighting, scrapping, swearing, occasionally incarcerated members of the Tigers — routinely leaves the comfort of his house to alternately comfort and berate his players in their blighted neighborhoods. In the film’s most affecting story line, assistant coach Mike Ray welcomes a gentle giant of a linebacker named O.C. to spend three nights a week at Ray’s well-appointed home so the football player can receive tutoring — and perhaps qualify for a college scholarship. (Unlike “The Blind Side,” which hews to an unfortunately common white-savior story line, “Undefeated” depicts Coach Ray working alongside O.C.’s grandmother and siblings in what is a group effort in urging the young man to succeed.)

We never learn what has become of O.C. — or his fellow protagonists Chavis and Montrail — in the two years since they were filmed for “Undefeated.” Although the filmmakers work hard at leaving viewers on a triumphant note of uplift, there are far too many ways their fragile life victories can be snatched away. Still, the images of connection across race, class and geographic lines in “Undefeated” subvert a raft of conventional notions that have long held sway in America, from the suburbs as tightly defended islands of racial fear and “I’m-all-right-Jack” privilege to the euphemistic use of words like “privacy” and “self-sufficiency” to talk about selfishness and greed.

What’s more, they lay bare the social costs of the vast disparities in wealth that have only widened over the past few decades. And those costs aren’t borne only by the poor, as Eva in her huge empty kitchen attests. In dramatically different but equally eloquent ways, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and “Undefeated” remind audiences that in a country where every home is a castle, no castle should be a fortress of solitude.

Ann Hornaday is The Post's movie critic.
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