Contraband and We Need to Talk About Kevin

A movie with no purpose, a woman with no hope.



Contraband wastes considerable energy, and several likable performers, in taking us to a place we've visited far too many times before. Although the story concerns drug-smuggling, and is set in New Orleans and at the Panama Canal, this is a by-the-numbers heist flick of such predictability that at several points you wonder why it's even unfolding.

An anticipatory indifference sets in right at the beginning, as we meet Chris Farraday (Mark Wahlberg), a one-time smuggler who's gone legit and now lives happily with his wife Kate (Kate Beckinsale) and their two kids. When Chris is approached at a bar by an old underworld colleague and asked if he has thought about getting back into the crime business, we wonder…well, we wonder nothing: We know exactly where this is headed.

Then Kate's younger brother Andy (Caleb Landry Jones) becomes involved in a coke-smuggling run for a Crescent City scumbag named Briggs (Giovanni Ribisi with a hide full of tattoos and a wheezy Looziana accent). When Andy is forced to ditch the drugs he's carrying back in order to avoid a customs bust, Chris has no choice but to make a run of his own in order to raise enough money to compensate Briggs, who will otherwise kill all concerned.

So, leaving Kate and the kids to the protection of Chris' buddy Sebastian (stubbly Ben Foster)—a recovering alcoholic who's slowly un-recovering—Chris and his similarly cash-strapped pal Danny (Lukas Haas) join the crew of a container ship helmed by the corrupt Captain Camp (reliably lively J.K. Simmons). Chris' plan, once the ship arrives in Panama City, is not to score drugs, but instead a payload of counterfeit U.S. dollars. This scheme, we are unsurprised to see, goes terribly wrong, and Chris finds himself mixed up with a crazy drug lord named Gonzalo (Diego Luna—always a pleasure to watch, even here).

There's much tearing around, and an extended gunfight, a furious escape back to the ship, all kinds of rote tension and treachery, even a cameo contribution by Jackson Pollock (!). It's a busy picture, but it far overshoots our willingness to care about it.

Fans of Wahlberg, an actor so full of unexpected resources, might well worry that he's scheduled to shoot another film with the Icelandic director of this one, Baltasar Kormákur. Contraband is the sort of Hollywood product that gives January such a bad name among moviegoers. Although it would still be what it is—not much—whenever it limped into theaters.               

We Need to Talk About Kevin

We Need to Talk About Kevin considers the dark question of where monsters come from. The movie is arctic in its emotional tone, with a carefully reined-in pace; and while it nods lightly in the direction of the old nature-versus-nurture debate, it settles firmly on the side of nature, demonstrating that sometimes evil just is.

The monster at issue is a boy named Kevin, the son of Eva Khatchdourian (Tilda Swinton) and her prosperous husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly). Prior to their marriage, Eva was a well-known travel writer, and she turns out to be ill-suited for stay-at-home domesticity. As a baby, Kevin cries and screams without letup, subsiding only when Franklin takes the child into his arms. Eva is exasperated, and when Franklin decides to move the little family out of the city in which they live and into a big house in a bland suburb, her heart sinks. 

By the time he's six, Kevin (played by the precociously unsettling Jasper Newell) has become a figure of brooding hostility, slyly destructive and impervious to his mother's attempts to bond with him (although he's sweet and winning with Franklin). Moving into his teens—and now played to scary perfection by Ezra Miller—the boy is revealed as a pure sociopath, a malevolent presence with shifting serpent eyes under a thatch of midnight-black hair. Appalled by her nightmare child, and frustrated by Franklin's refusal to acknowledge his bent nature (they need to talk about Kevin, but they never really do), Eva crumples into a despondent haze of wine and pills. After she delivers a sibling named Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich) into the family, the sunny little girl becomes another target for Kevin's startlingly cruel torments. (He addresses her as "retard," and at one point takes a vacuum cleaner to her hair). When Celia's pet hamster disappears, we fear the hideous worst, and turn out to be right. When she is blinded in one eye, we don't actually see what has happened, but by this point we know.

The movie is based on a 2003 novel by Lionel Shriver (actually a woman—a significant point in regard to the story's orientation toward female trepidations); and the Scottish director, Lynn Ramsay, making her first movie since the 2002 Morvern Callar, maintains exacting control of the film's fractured narrative. The story is presented in jumbled shards, and in the beginning it's difficult to keep track of where we are, and when. Why is Eva suddenly living in a small, shabby house splattered on the outside with red paint? Why are her neighbors accosting at her with such hatred? What is the clamorous crime scene at which she arrives one night, and why is the crowd on hand so horror-struck? The story steadily comes together, though, and by the time we see Kevin entering his high school with high-tech bow and arrows (a Christmas gift from his dad), and then grimly locking the exit doors, no question remains. Except the presiding one: Why?

The movie is serenely styled, its bland environments flecked with daubs of bloody red—red soup cans and breakfast jam, red jackets and foliage, and a bedside clock that always seems to be flashing 12:00 in pulsing red digits, suggesting a police emergency signal. This insistent color design, which recalls the subtler chromatic strategies of Pedro Almodóvar, calls too much attention to itself after a while; and the notion of a high-school slaughter being carried out with bow and arrows is jarringly implausible. But the movie has a relentless, harrowing power; and Tilda Swinton, who's at the center of virtually every scene, gives a singular performance, conveying the depths of human despair through a character who is at times near-catatonic. When Eva asks Kevin to explain the purpose of one of his dreadful actions, we can feel her soul hitting rock bottom as he replies. "There is no point," he says, gazing at her with dead eyes. "That's the point."   

Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, is now available. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.      

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  1. Loder: You are dangerously close to exposing the double life I lead as predictable action movie star and head coach of floundering FBS Division Football program.

    Good vibrations!
    -Jimmie Jim

    1. The world around you is unobservable because you are a program and are stuck in a computers memory.

  2. Economies of scale. Discuss.

  3. We Need to Talk About Kevin

    it settles firmly on the side of nature, demonstrating that sometimes evil just is.

    Apparently gen x is frightfully scared of the pokemon generation with their facebook pages and internet memes or some bullshit.

    I guess it is becoming a timeless theme…every new generation is a horde of monsters in the eyes of the preceding generation.

    1. We are talking.

    2. As an aging gen-exer, I love the new generation way better than I loved my own– which I didn’t very much.

      I just signed my daughter up for Pokemon club at school.

      1. I can’t agree that my conversation is erratic. After all, I have simply been making responses to your statements.

      2. I’ve decided I rather dislike the Gen-X meme. It seems to me to be an idea invented by boomers to describe the “slacker” young people who succeeded them. After all nobody spoke of people in terms of generational identity before the Baby Boomers came along. That idea got born out of the 60s, where these was an identifiable horde of young people running around.

        “Generation X” just got slagged with that name because the boomers needed a word to identify young people who weren’t them, once they started hitting their 40s. Basically an expression of every older generation’s perception that the young people are a bunch of disrespectful lazy fuckers who don’t respect their elders. Hence the slacker meme.

        As someone who is purportedly a member of generation X, though, I don’t think I’ve ever regarded myself as a “slacker” and I don’t particularly appreciate been labeled collectively as one just because of the age group I belong to and some retarded pop-culture meme.

    3. Plato mentioned that the younger generation didn’t respect their elders like they did when he was young. It’s literally been going on for at least that long.

      If every generation was really worse than the last dating back 2,500 years, we’d be nothing more than feral animals by now.

      1. I was going to mention one of the Greek philosophers– I thought it was Aristotle– was bitching about the youth. But my natural fecklessness and lack of ambition made me stop before I could google and verify it.

        1. I think it was Plato. I could be wrong though. Too lazy to look it up.

          1. It was Plato, the only question is was he attributing it to Socrates.

        2. That’s a really good idea. If you could get everyone together in the one place at the one time.

        3. “I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on
          frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond
          words… When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and
          respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise
          [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint.” (Hesiod, 8th century BC).

      2. Oh, and:

        Look how Greece ended up! Respect your elders, kids!

      3. You should get out more.

    4. What makes it generational? Some people are just fucking bad. Nothing new about that.

  4. Contraband’s commercials are so bad (they end with a video-game style explosion; it’s truly embarrassing) that it was obvious this thing is terrible.

    1. Your face is terrible!


      1. “Shhh! You hear that? That’s the sound of him Jim not being here. You can thank me for that later.”

    2. What is that from?

    3. Funny I would’ve guessed it was Michael Bay at the helm.

    4. All I thought watching the commercial was “Gee, I’ve certainly never seen this movie before….”

  5. Huh? What’s going on here? Where am I? Something’s not right. What happened?

    1. Mark, forget about ‘The Fighter,’ you do your best work when I’m directing you!

      1. I think this country is becoming third world.

  6. John C. Reilly and Tilda Swinton – Is it possible to think of an actor / actress pair MORE likely to produce hideous offspring? Maybe Steve Buscemi and Ileana Douglas?

    On the other hand – and despite the fact both movies will probably suck – I’ll get my eye candy fix from Miss Beckinsale when I Netflix Contraband and Underworld 4 in a few months.

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  15. and the notion of a high-school slaughter being carried out with bow and arrows is jarringly implausible.

    Woman charged in NW Houston bow-and-arrow attack
    Albuquerque man arrested in bow and arrow attack

    1. Woman charged in NW Houston bow-and-arrow attack

      Albuquerque man arrested in bow and arrow attack

      In each case, a single victim. Loder’s point that a Columbine-esque massacre being carried out with a bow and arrows is a valid one.

      A note of interest, though: in the first story, the crazy bitch was fired upon and wounded by some CCW holders after she shot the guy.

  16. God you people are snarky. I was hoping to actually hear some input about the Kevin movie, which looks interesting. Kind of a “demonic child” flick with no demons or supernatural bull.

    I read the book years ago and one thing I remember is the “twist” ending being pretty shocking and horrible

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  20. My impression of “We need to talk about Kevin” is that it is an examination of what it must be like to raise a sociopath.

    Kevin is conscienceless and manipulative of his parents, basically a textbook sociopath. He’s horrible to the mother when his father isn’t around , sadisticly toying with her emotions and then playing an innocent angel as soon as his father shows up. As he gets older he doesn’t grow out of it her just gets smarter. And you basically can see how a person like this would of course aspire to becoming a criminal mastermind or pursue serial killing for the fame.

    Sociopaths aren’t just kids with cold mother’s or bad childhood’s. Its a cognitive defect, that has some sort of root in the amydala. They are born not made. So some mothers somewhere must have raised these kids and no doubt known, at some point, what they were.

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  22. The bow and arrow massacre is slightly more plausible given the book’s story, that Kevin managed to pull off locking a bunch of kids in a gym and pick them off from the rafters. Apparently, the reason for that was to sidestep the gun control issue.

    What I’m really curious about: Does Eva throw young Kevin across the room and break his arm like she did in the book? That was a fun bit, with Kevin then covering her ass when he could’ve easily told. One of the more interesting aspects of the book was the connection between Kevin and Eva. In the end, they sort of love each other.

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