Lynne Ramsay is a Scottish director, producer, writer, and cinematographer, known for her sparse dialogue, saturated visuals, and elliptical, non-sequential story-telling style. Her stories tend to center on struggling folks grappling with loss, grief, and mourning. She received a bit of infamy a few years back, after walking out on the doomed film Jane Got A Gun. According to the producers, she walked out on the first day of filming; according to Ramsay, she spent months of time, energy, and money working with the young writer, meticulously cast every character and extra, and even learned to film horses, only to learn that the producers wanted to rewrite the story with a happy ending. Ramsay did not. When the producers began asking for extra "covering shots," she knew that they were planning on editing the new "happy ending" in post-production, against Ramsay's wishes. So she walked. (Good for her!!).
This led to a long slump between projects, until she was rightfully resurrected with her unique take on the long-attempted adaptation of We Need To Talk About Kevin; and again a few years later with the quiet thriller You Were Never Really Here starring Joaquin Phoenix, which won her Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor at Cannes (an unprecedented and highly revered combination).
“I’ve got a reputation for being difficult,” she says, “and yet with my crew and my cast, I’m super-collaborative and we get on really well, and they like working with me. So to me that always feels like bullshit. You’re doing a tough job, where you’re the captain of the ship, and there’s always tough decisions to make, and sometimes you’ve just got to go, ‘That’s not right for this’. You’ve got to stick up for what you believe in. If you don’t do that, you’re doing a disservice to the audience, because you’re making something really diluted.
Morvern Callar (2002)
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay
Written by: Lynne Ramsay & Liana Dognini (screenplay), based on the novel by Alan Warner
Starring: Samantha Morton
IMDB Synopsis: After her beloved husband's suicide, a mourning supermarket worker and her best friend hit the road in Scotland, but find that grief is something that you can't run away from forever.
Cell Phone Rating: 📱📱📱📱📱/ 5
*Trigger Warnings* Suicide, really bad crime, and an existential ennui that makes Camus' The Stranger look like Polly fucking Anna.
To be totally honest, I had an extremely hard time watching this movie. I have jokingly thought to myself about making a new starring system for grading films, but instead of stars I would use cell phones to represent how many times I reached for my phone out of absolute boredom. From now on, I will start including this grading method in my info-preamble. For example:
I had to do extensive research to try and justify why this movie is the way it is, but have not yet discovered a satisfactory explanation.
To contextualize: we open up on Morvern Callar (yep, that's her name) finding her boyfriend dead on the kitchen floor on Christmas day. He has written a suicide note for her on the computer, apologizing for his actions and insisting it had nothing to do with her and that he loved her very much. He also requests that she print out his novel and send it out, as it was his dying wish for it to be published.
So what does Morvern do? Oh, you know, just the normal things: she opens up her Christmas presents, gets dressed up, goes out clubbing, does some drugs, has a threesome, comes back home, puts a bed sheet over the her corpse of her boyfriend, goes to work at the supermarket, comes home and makes herself dinner, burns a pizza, moves her boyfriend's corpse into the bathroom, scrubs the kitchen floor, cuts her boyfriends body up into pieces, puts them in a backpack, takes them to the woods, buries them, does a little dance, goes back home, opens up his novel, changes his name to HER NAME, prints it out, sends it to publishers, takes the money that was intended for her boyfriend's funeral and goes to a resort in Spain with her best friend, finds out one drunken night that her BFF slept with her (dead) boyfriend, seems to feel nothing about this, locks herself out of the hotel room while her BFF is clubbing, knocks on a random door, a hot young guy opens it, he's crying because his mother just died, they have sex (???), Morvern finally freaks out a LITTLE the next morning and makes the BFF come with her to find "a better resort," they take a taxi to the middle of nowhere, get lost in rural Spain, pass out on the side of the road, Morvern ABANDONS her there and hitch hikes back to the main city, gets a phone call from those publishers (who think the manuscript), meets up with them, they offer her $100,000 for the book, she goes back home to pack her bags, takes her dead boyfriend's music collection, locks up the house behind her, has one last drink with her BFF at their neighborhood bar (she managed to find her way home after being literally left for dead on the side of the road in the middle of goddamn nowhere), and then takes her one little hobo bag to the train station to presumably start her new life doing whatever the fuck she wants because she's kind of rich now.
Shockingly, that run-on sentence description was easily 128% more interesting to read than actually watching it unfold, which is absolutely bonkers because it has all the potential to be fascinating. I found myself reminiscing about the film Bleu by Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieślowski, which spectacularly captures the bizarre emotional landscape of grief. What’s so upsetting about Morvern Callar is that she doesn’t appear to be just dealing with her trauma in an unusual way - she doesn’t seem to be affected at all. I tried looking up excerpts or reviews from the novel this is based on, and they all said the exact same thing: the book is written in first person singular, and Morvern’s voice is monotonous, detached, and utterly devoid of emotion. The only time she even gets close to exhibiting even an echo of human feeling is whenever she sees an insect, presumably because it reminds her of the worms that were crawling in and out of the dirt when she BURIED THE DISMEMBERED BODY PARTS OF HER RECENTLY DECEASED LOVER. It just blows my mind that a movie about such an outrageous series of events could be so painfully dull to observe.
But of course, you must remember My Checklist: sure there where moments of aesthetic beauty, but since Morvern didn’t care, I didn’t really care, and therefore the tension was sucked right out of the room. There was no relationship. There was no reason to give a shit, at all. And while I speculate that was the point, I really fucking hate this post-modernist notion of making pointless art to express the pointlessness of life. I went through my existentialist phase in college, I smoked clove cigarettes, I dated an abusive asshole who called my art “masturbatory,” I argued with a professor about The Urinal. I get it, I really do. I’m just not into watching an entire movie about it. There were so many ways this story could’ve been told with a little more heart, gotten us to care even a little bit - I found myself craving for the narrated voiceover we at least got in Reichardt’s River of Grass, something to let us into Samantha Morton’s head - because despite everything, her head will always just seem like a really cool place! But I got nothing.
Actually, that's not entirely true. I got this one cool song, from the mix tape soundtrack of the deceased. RIP James Gillespie, sorry your girlfriend sucked, you had dope taste in music.
We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay
Written by: Lynne Ramsay & Rory Stewart Kinnear, based on the novel by Lionel Shriver
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly, Jasper Newell
IMDB Synopsis: Kevin's mother struggles to love her strange child, despite the increasingly dangerous things he says and does as he grows up. But Kevin is just getting started, and his final act will be beyond anything anyone imagined.
*Trigger Warning* Child-related violence, school shooting, and one (most likely) murdered hamster
There is no one who captures atmosphere quite like Lynne Ramsay.
I'm intrigued by this concept of an "omnipotent, unseen main character," because I've seen it used in such a unique myriad of ways throughout this bracket: most recently, I'm reminded of Reichardt's landscapes and Sciamma's tension. Of course these are elements that all films have, but the way these women managed to make them full-bodied, potent, invisible characters was extraordinary. And that's exactly what Ramsay does with atmosphere... through a flutter of meticulously disjointed images and a creeping soundscape, I once again felt like I was walking through a museum gallery of contemporary photography, or watching the weirdest music video ever. But if you keep watching, you realize these are all tiny details of a much larger whole. Kevin reminded me of those pieces of art where a much larger image is composed of hundreds, even thousands of tiny photographs; you start out zoomed in on a single image, then another, then another, and by the end of the film you feel like you're standing in the back of an empty room, staring at the horrifying masterpiece from fifty feet away, finally able to see it's completed form in all it's terrible glory.
Forget the trailer, hands down the greatest moment in this film (acting wise) is Ezra Miller's outstanding performance of this scathing monologue, and the look on Tilda Swinton's face...
One of my favorite progressions was at the very beginning: we're jumping back and forth between Eva's present (her son has committed an atrocity and is in prison, and she lives alone a shitty house), and her past (life before children, getting pregnant, Kevin's early life). In under 60 seconds, we are given these three images: Eva, pregnant and terrified in pre-natal yoga class, Eva walking down the hall being surrounded by little ballerinas in tutus, and Eva passing through a maximum security prison to visit her son.
Maybe it's just my inner English Lit nerd, but the comparison here is not that subtle. The juxtaposition of a pregnant woman with fear and dread in her eyes to her fifteen years later, the most exhausted looking woman on the planet, passing through prison security: Pre-Natal Yoga is to Baby as Maximum Security is to...? Spoiler alert, but Baby = Prison. And being overwhelmed with the presence of several dozen precious, innocent girls in an achingly obvious feminine trope (ballerina = frail, femininity, expectations of women in society to endure incredible pain and look beautiful while doing it) was just a very nice touch.
As for the rest of the atmosphere: red, red, and more red. A dense crowd, covered in violent red pulp (Spain’s La Tomatina festival, perhaps?), red light on a sad dinner of red wine and eggs with ketchup, coming from the red paint splattered on Eva’s post-traumatic incident home; red and blue lights from the ambulances coming to collect the bodies Kevin piled up; a red ball that toddler-Kevin refuses to play with nicely, red ink destroying Eva’s home office, her one refuge from her demon-child; blood coming up from the sink after teenage-Kevin stuffs his kid sister’s pet hamster in the garbage disposal…
The list goes on and on, but the through-line is another unsubtle juxtaposition: Eva’s new home is vandalized with red paint, and we are constantly assaulted with inter spliced scenes of her power-sanding it into oblivion, scrubbing it with bleach, or peeling it with razor blades. Nothing can quite get that damned spot out, though.
I’m honestly delighted by Ramsay’s blatant use of the visual metaphor; because on the one hand, the analogies are super aggressive and make no pretense of being delicate. On the other hand, because she weaves them so persistently in with the rest of the story, they catch you off guard, and at first glance feel totally disconnected. But they’re not! Everything is connected! I love it when stories do that - like a macabre tapestry with one loose thread that has the power to pull the whole damn thing apart.
I've never read the book it's based on, so perhaps it goes into more detail there, but I was perhaps most deeply impacted by the delicate usage of the Robin Hood "allegory." Kevin despises his mother to an almost obsessive degree, and seemingly has since birth. No matter how hard she tries to love him, it only makes him hate her more. He appears to believe love is a weakness, and seems to get off on watching Eva become weaker and weaker as she runs out of ways to try and make her son love her. The doctor, the husband, the lack of teachers or other parents who ever comment on his behavior - they all unknowingly join Kevin in gas-lighting Eva.
There is exactly ONE moment when Kevin ever lets his guard down and offers up a crumb of affection to Eva: he gets the stomach flu, and after dutifully cleaning his vomit and tucking him into bed, she reads him a bedtime story - Robin Hood. Dad comes to check on them, and for the first (and last) time, Kevin tells Dad to fuck off, because he wants Mom instead. Eva is ecstatic, but the change of behavior is short-lived, because the very next morning Kevin's back to telling Mom to fuck off and die.
But the love - or is it obsession? - with Robin Hood sticks. Kevin becomes fascinated with the character, dons his costume as a child, and takes up a love of archery... the same weapon that he will ultimately use to murder his schoolmates. Not only was this a genius way to write a story about a school-shooter while delicately avoiding become gun-law propaganda, but this twist manages to give the teenage Kevin the kind of depth that it generally takes serial killers decades to perfect (or at least an entire season of television). It reminded me of the aptly named character Achilles from the book Ender's Shadow by Orson Scott Card, a homeless child turned teenage serial killer who's hit list is everyone who ever witnessed him weak or offered him help.
Now I realize this is more a commentary on the writing, but the way Ramsay manages to connect these little moments and images is actually the most subtle part of the film. The name "Robin Hood" is never spoken, you never even see the full cover of the book, you are just given little crumbs of detail, and left to put all the pieces back together for yourself.
There is one image that will haunt me the most from this film, and it's 100% Ramsay: Eva comes home from the school, after watching her son taken away in handcuffs, surrounded by his carnage. She calls for her husband and daughter, but no one is home. The curtain covering the door to the backyard is billowing in the wind, the very first image we see in the film. We suddenly remember that in all those scenes where Eva was scrubbing that shitty house and working that shitty job, there really was no mention of what happened to her husband, was there? If there's one thing in common with stories about school-shooters, it's who they kill first... She walks to the backyard, and sure enough, her husband and young daughter were not spared from Kevin's wrath. Eva reappears from the curtains, covered in their blood, and collapses on the bed. I have never seen an actor embody the utter devastation and hollowness that Tilda Swinton manages to accomplish.
And in the distance, blurry through the back window, we see that goddamned archery target.
And the winner is...