The kids are all wrong

Nightmare children populate the dark, dreary and near-perfect "The Bad Seed" and "We Need to Talk About Kevin"

Published May 29, 2012 3:20PM (EDT)

The best movies act as a kind of amber, trapping the life of their times. Sometimes, you get jewels, other times you get, well, amber.

It was hard to read anything about “We Need to Talk About Kevin” without some reference to its distinguished antecedents in the “there’s something about that boy, June” school of demon child cinema. "The Omen," "Rosemary's Baby" and "Problem Child" all got their time on deck, but one film in particular gets mentioned, for it invented this entire genre. And that film is Mervyn LeRoy’s 1956 epic "The Bad Seed." This is one of those movies embedded in our consciousness that perhaps should stay embedded and not actually be pried loose.

Which brings us to this week’s double bill. “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” just out today, is an unrelentingly grim, absolutely depressing, difficult-to-recommend-to-anyone work of sublime, essential filmmaking. Say again? OK. In the words of Preston Sturges, there is “nothing like a deep-dish movie to drive you out into the open.” “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is that kind of movie, an absolutely brilliant work of narrative and deliberately elliptical narrative storytelling. It takes this trope of the bad seed and plants it so it grows into some kind of hallucinatory kudzu. It cannot be easily eradicated once it is experienced first-hand. Not since Billy Mumy wished those pesky adults into the cornfield in one of the all-time creepiest works of TV Noir has a demon child been depicted as being quite so, well, “hellish.”

Based on the 2004 novel by Lionel Shriver, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is told from the point of view of worldly travel writer Eva Khatchadourian. Besides having to cope with a difficult-to-spell last name, Eva has to endure a nightmarish life as the mother of perhaps the worst child in cinema history. This slow-motion torture of Eva is capped with a Columbine-style school massacre that tears this movie’s heart wide open. No surprise there, but the brilliance of the film is the way the chronology of catastrophe coils around itself, yet propels relentlessly forward. I must mention here that the editing of the film is wonderful. I also must mention that the editor of this film is my friend and colleague Joe Bini, but I’m not just saying this to butter Joe up so he takes my notes seriously next time. If anything, the editing in this film makes me nervous to ever suggest anything to Joe ever again -- it is that good. But there is enough praise to go around. The film's director, Lynn Ramsey, has a command of film vocabulary that keeps it from becoming the Art House “Omen” it so easily might have been. Yes, there are many scenes of mannered excess, but what manners, what excess!

Now, no film about a Bad Seed can succeed with a bad child actor – and “We Need to Talk About Kevin” has two extraordinary seeds. Ezra Miller plays the teenage Archer from Hell, and Jasper Newell is simply terrifying as a Satan in Snuggies. Both not only look alike and talk alike, at times they even glare alike. You can lose your mind, as Tilda Swinton does, thoroughly, across two excruciating hours. Any parent who read the recent New York Times Magazine article on 9-year-old newly diagnosed psychopaths cannot help but empathize with Swinton’s Eva. Those same parents also should not -- repeat not -- watch this movie. Cherish your pet hamster and let this one go. Trust me on this.

This brings us to the only real problem with “We Need to Talk About Kevin” -- the reason for its existence. One wonders just why this story demanded to be told and why so many consummate craftsmen felt compelled to tell a story of such absolute darkness and despair. It reminds me of another work of scary excellence that was pretty much a career black-hole for all connected with it, Bob Fosse’s “Star 80.” Perhaps the worst first-date movie of all time, “Star 80” worked brilliantly on just about every level, except for the basic story it told, which had even Fosse disciples screaming for the exits and pretty much torpedoed the career of Julia Roberts's far more talented brother.

Both "Star 80" and “We Need to Talk About Kevin” get the “Michael Powell Peeping Tom” award for Excellence In Service of Repulsion, and both are great films. I really just wonder what the filmmakers thought they were doing, what audiences they thought they were going to reach, and why they wanted to reach them in the first place. I’m not going to ask my friend Joe, but, God bless Lynn Ramsey and her creative team, and Bob Fosse and Michael Powell, for going for it – whatever they thought “it” might be.

"The Bad Seed," on the other hand, did nothing to derail the career of its director, Mervyn LeRoy. Perhaps it should have. A too-faithful translation of the 1954 hit Broadway play, it’s a film best consigned to legend and not actually watched, unless, of course, as the first part of this double bill with “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” LeRoy was the '50s king of Broadway adaptations, with "The Bad Seed" following “Mister Roberts” and leading into his translation of “No Time for Sergeants.” His best work helming Warner Brother’s Pre-Code quickies was 25 years behind him, not to mention a guest shot at the “Wizard of Oz." LeRoy brought very little to the "The Bad Seed." Most of the cast of the play were imported to LeRoy’s set, and most were still delivering their lines to the far balcony. LeRoy’s camera just got in the way.

And what lines they delivered! "The Bad Seed" is one long pulled punch.

Remember the ending of “Psycho” where all of the delicious crimes are explained away in a long exposition scene? This film is stuffed with what Orson Welles called “dollar-book Freud,” apparently necessary for 1950s audiences who could not – or would not – imagine a child who actually did enjoy pulling the wings off flies. Even Bosley Crowther, the arteriosclerotic film critic for the New York Times, called the movie out on its staginess and over-the-top acting -- and this was in 1956. Sadly, the film isn’t really bad enough to be really good. With the exception of Patty McCormack’s trailblazing performance as Rhoda Tasker, the titular Bad Seed in question, all the other performances are mannered beyond belief. Henry Jones, in particular, must be signaled out for essaying the role of Leroy, the dimwitted proto-pervert maintenance man. Leroy has Rhoda’s number early on, but keeps forgetting to add it up correctly, until Rhoda demonstrates convincingly why children should not play with matches.

But, rejoice, fans of Hollywood tacked-on Hays Code endings. You will absolutely love the very end of this film, where the cast takes an actual curtain call (!) and demon Rhoda gets an actual spanking (!!) from a smiling mom. And all this after God smites Evil in just about that amount of time. Astonishing now, and I have to believe astonishing then. This is as complete an act of dramatic self-negation as ever appended to a Hollywood movie. When TCM junkies pine for the days of classic old Hollywood, movies like "The Bad Seed" do not help them make their case. “We Need to Talk About Kevin," on the other hand, is a fully realized work of committed cinematic virtuosity, in the service of a story that many simply do not want to hear. It has the courage of its convictions, and in this era of focus-group-driven filmmaking, courage is more than enough.

Watching this double bill shows just how far we have come – on a journey we may not want to make.

Worst first-date movie of all time? I suggested "Star 80," but perhaps you, dear readers, can help with other titles, and, perhaps, the saga of other disastrous movie dates. See you in the comments section!!

By Erik Nelson

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