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Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film, plus some poetry

compare and contrast: We Need to Talk about Kevin and Tree of Life

As coincidences go, the fact that two striking films appeared in 2011 on the perils of family life is an intriguing one. And in a world of polar opposites, We need to talk about Kevin and The Tree of Life rank among the very intriguing. One’s immediate reaction will be to love one and hate the other. Of course, they may both be wrong, but they cannot both be right, can they?

And yet they may be. It is one of the beauties of the cinema that like art in general it can juxtapose two versions of the world complete and satisfying in themselves: Titian and Rembrandt, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Shostakovich and Stravinsky. So, in the red corner, Lynne Ramsay’s We need to talk about Kevin – tight, crammed with life-denying incomprehensibility, redemption-refusing. And in the blue corner, Terrence Malick's Tree of Life – expansive, abundant, a hymn to a redeemed world. One might even be tempted to label one Protestant, the other Catholic, but this is an opaque distinction. The divide is much more between a world of ultimate cruelty and a world of ultimate goodness.

Both cast the weight of their narratives onto the non-verbal. (Indeed this is the burden of the title We need to talk about Kevin, since it is the failure of the parents to speak and listen to each other, their failure to talk, that drives the narrative.) This is done well so both films make compelling viewing, and that is something to welcome.

© Tim Cawkwell 2011