[1 May 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
I know, I know… it makes me sound so fair weather. After all, she’s been in the biz for what seems like an eternity. I remember all the Orlando brouhaha, the talk about her “androgynous” looks and “gender bending” aura. I even recall her minor moments in Adaptation. and Vanilla Sky (sadly, I have yet to experience The Beach all the way through). No, the first time I can recall being really impressed with Tilda Swinton was when she played the archangel Gabriel in the oddball comic book movie Constantine. She was so luminous, so ambiguously a-human and completely heaven sent that I was compelled to know more about her. Sadly, what I came across (a bunch of self-serving arthouse malarkey with names like Conceiving Ada) did little to impress me.
Then came Michael Clayton, and that classic scene at the end where George Clooney’s enigmatic ‘fixer’ takes Swinton’s smug corporate attorney down with a single “you are so fucked” phrase. It was at that moment, at that single line reading (all she says in response, initially, is “What?” if I remember correctly) that Swinton went from afterthought to goddess. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it was the whole of her performance in that film, the usually willowy woman suddenly struggling to pull a business suit’s skirt around her frumpy hips or how she practiced her put-ons in anxiety riddled run-throughs in the mirror. Whatever it was, it worked - and I clearly wasn’t alone. In a year that saw Cate Blanchett, Ruby Dee, Saoirse Ronan, and Amy Ryan all nominated for some amazing work, dark horse Tilda walked away with the 2007 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Now, I know it’s hipster and uber-cool to love her today. After all, she danced to Barry White with Roger Ebert’s widow at the late film critic’s most recent festival. She played a living statue for an art exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. She even went so far as to fulfill every music nerds inner fantasy by playing alongside her defiant doppelganger—David Bowie—in his latest music video. So it’s clear that Swinton has done everything humanly (and in some cases, otherworldly) possible to solidify her status as the Queen of all things trendy and talented. But for me, the moment that cemented said standing fully in my mind came with a little seen masterpiece of modern parenting nightmares known as We Need to Talk About Kevin. Though Oscar left her less than a bridesmaid this time (she wasn’t even nominated), for me, her work in the movie becomes a timeless testament to the true Tilda Swinton.
Playing the frail, flawed mother of a boy who instigated a Columbine like tragedy, the role of travel writer turned town pariah Eva Khatchadourian is perfect for the actress. It’s the essence of her dichotomy. On the one hand, we get the lithe and aloof metropolitan gal, the woman who wants nothing more than a husband who understands her need to be free while scouring society and playing the perennial supermom to the offspring society mandates. But the moment the title child is born, a bouncing baby boy of biologically based pure malevolence, a transformation begins. Slowly, layers of who Eva are peeled away. She is exposed. A change to the suburbs is suggested by husband John C. Reilly, but Swinton’s character is less than enthusiastic. In the city, there is protection. In the country, there is the cover of distance and disinterest.
As it turns out, Eva is right. Kevin becomes the ultimate hellspawn, a child for whom destruction and death becomes a surreal second nature. He destroys anything that has to do with his mom while doting on his dad in evil, manipulative ways. By the end, the now teen Kevin has set his family up for the ultimate fall. Taking everything away from his maternal parent that he can, he kills his dad and little sister before heading to school and doing the same with several of his classmates. When confronted by a guilt-ridden Eva, asked why he did what he did, he has no real answer. Left with that lack of closure, our heroine must move on, but not before giving her incarcerated child, her last link to any kind of family, a final hug.
It’s a performance of heartbreaking beauty, one clearly better than the work done by Meryl Streep (who won her third Oscar for the showboating Iron Lady), and other nominees Viola Davis, Rooney Mara, and Michelle Williams. For most of the movie, Eva is alone. She must deal with reestablishing a life, getting a job she is clearly overqualified for while working with people who look at her as the cause of the deadly chaos her son created. The town hates her, pelting her new rental house with red paint to symbolize the bloodshed she forged, and as she sleepwalks through her meaningless days, Swinton lets us know that this ill-prepared parent has been changed irrevocably by what Kevin did - and not just in the obvious, awful ways. Eva is doomed, and maybe, just maybe, some of it was her fault. Maybe.
It was like an epiphany for me. Director Lynne Ramsey’s amazing visual style, filled with harsh reds and vibrant colors, contrasted the darkness brewing beneath the surface, and standing in the middle was a wounded woman who looked like a supermodel stripped of her sexual allure. In its place was skeletal specter merely going through the motions of existence, a zombie drained from the day in, day out drudgery of mere survival. From the moment that movie was over, I was hooked. I championed it whenever I could and told my fellow critics who were less than enthusiastic that there were idiots. Like any new convert, I went back through my limited Swinton catalog. I watched her work in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, tried to make my way through the otherwise ordinary Chronicles of Narnia efforts. As the stark civil servant in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, she again brought a sense of ethereal grace to an otherwise ordinary role.
Since then, as mentioned before, it’s been one act of considered cool after another. In a world where social media instantly assesses and grades your various actions, she’s been earning nothing but “A"s and her future prospects look enticing, to say the least. She will star in the sci-fi thriller Snowpiercer from South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (The Host, Mother) and then follow that up with a vampire romance from Jim Jarmusch entitled Only Lovers Left Alive. Currently, she is filming with Monty Python ex-pat Terry Gilliam for his latest, The Zero Theorem. After that - who knows. Maybe she will pull a Michael Shannon and ‘act out’ the latest viral meme, or travel to a foreign land and become a spiritual guru. Whatever she does next, I am there. Diss me all you want, but I am now a full blown Tilda Swinton convert, and it has very little to do with her recent string of stunts. Better late than never, I guess.