A film review by Craig J. Koban March 16, 2012
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN
2011, R, 111 mins.
2011, R, 111 mins.
Eva: Tilda Swinton / Franklin: John C. Reilly / Kevin:
(teenager) Ezra Miller / Kevin: (6-8 years) Jasper Newell / Kevin:
(toddler) Rocky Duer
NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is a most curious hodgepodge of drama and
psychological horror set within the unraveling fragility of a slowly
imploding domestic relationship between a mother and son.
It concerns a woman that, for the most part, seemed to be enjoying
her life before she became pregnant, then a little proverbial bundle of
joy comes and makes her once cozy and tidy existence a living hell.
As the infant grows into early childhood something just seems...off
about him, but when he matures into his middle teen years it becomes
alarmingly clear that this lad has become a monstrous nightmare.
film is adapted from Lionel Shriver’s book of the same name by director
Lynne Ramsey, a gifted filmmaking voice that has the very tricky task here
of traversing some truly unsettling and polarizing material.
The film not only has to deal with the methodical deterioration of
the mother’s state of mind and being, but it also has to portray what
happens to maternal figures when their own child – after a seriously
troublesome upbringing - becomes a vile sociopath.
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN becomes an uncommonly strong reflection
of three key themes that, no doubt, any parent could relate to: resentment,
guilt, and personal responsibility.
The mother here initially resents having her baby (she never truly
wanted one), but nonetheless feels responsible for trying to rear him.
However, when the boy makes some unspeakable choices at great
burdensome emotional costs to those around him, the mother can barely deal
with the enormity of her guilt. It’s
every mom’s worst fear that the boy she tried to raise becomes truly
film is presented in a fragmented chronological order involving a somewhat
chaotic and initially confusing array of flashbacks and flashforwards
(more on that in a bit): like a perverse jigsaw puzzle, we are meant to
put the pieces together to make some meaningful semblance of the whole.
Eva (a fearless and vanity-free Tilda Swinton) was once a
successful travel writer with what appeared to be - as shown in the past -
a loving and wealthy husband in Franklin (John C. Reilly, so refreshingly
good when not playing broad comedic roles) and a large and lavish home. Scenes in the present, though, show Eva as a woman
pathetically beaten down by life: she lives alone in a dirty, drab, and
tiny house in a questionable neighborhood with no friends or family around
her. Old acquaintances she comes in
contact with now hate her with a passion. She is forced to take a
small and demeaning job at a mom and pop travel agency that seems to be
sucking her soul away on a daily basis.
Her job, though, is close to the prison where her son now resides,
Kevin (Ezra Miller).
rest of film, for the most part, is a muddled kaleidoscope of her
tormented memories of Kevin. As
she looks back at her life with him she inwardly struggles with what
has happened to him (at this point, we are not quite sure).
From very early on it's clear that Kevin will not be a
normal boy. As a newborn
infant he perpetually screams around his mother, but seems fine with
his father. At the second
presented stage of Kevin’s existence he is shown as an exhaustively
irritating tyke that’s perhaps even more frustrating to deal with than
Oskar Schell from EXTREMELY
LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE. Kevin
at five-ish (Jasper Newell) shows outward early signs that he is a
ticking time bomb of a manipulative beast: he angrily glares at his mother
for no reason, purposely soils his diapers just to annoy her, and
perpetually rejects any of her genuine or false affection.
At one point, out of sheer aggravation, Eva throws the child to
ground and breaks his arm; under any other “normal” circumstances she
would be reviled as a horrible person, but here…I’m not so sure.
attempts at talking to her husband about Kevin are failures; Franklin
seems to think that Kevin is “just a kid” and will grow out of it, but
Eva remains suspicious. Eva
eventually has another child, a daughter, who seems positively angelic when compared
to her brother. As Kevin gowns into adolescence (played by Miller with the
lecherous smirk and penetratingly sullen eyes of a Kubrickian villain) his
mind games become more elaborate and, at times, even sickening, which
only causes Eva to become more paranoid and develop serious
riffs between herself and husband. As
Kevin’s social appetite for wanton destruction takes a turn for the
worst, Eva becomes a cauldron of self-pity and despair.
NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is replete with disturbing imagery provided by
cinematographer Seamus McGarvey’s eye for surreal flourishes (an
introductory scene showcasing Eva in a riotous group of hundreds of people
being bathed by what looks like a lake of blood and innards – which is later revealed as
something else entirely - is undeniably creepy).
The film maintains a vehement sense of impending terror with its
artful panache, although its frequent and obvious usage of red colored
visual motifs seems a bit overly telegraphed.
We see blood-red Merlot, blood-red travel
billboards, blood-red jelly on bread, blood-red lipstick, and, hell, even
Eva’s house is defiled with blood-red paint being thrown on it.
Red is the allegorical color for violence…uh…okay...we get it.
film’s jarring backwards and forwards narrative jumps are, at least at
first, sometimes irksome and confusing, which I guess is meant to reflect
Eva's jagged web of conflicting emotions and memories. Only after a very slowly and haphazardly assembled first act are we
given broader insights into Eva’s current predicament and what
ultimately led to it. This
has the somewhat negative side effect of making the film feel emotionally
impenetrable at times; it becomes difficult to latch on to key characters
because many are just sketchily developed. Some of Kevin’s actions as well – without giving too much
away – seem to take a cue from FATAL ATTRACTION-esque sadist clichés
and his final actions in the film do not offer up much insight into what
makes him tick beyond the
notion that he is appallingly cruel.
Maybe Kevin is meant to be alarmingly enigmatic to viewers
because...well...he is to his mother.
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN may be stylistically pretentious and hard to navigate through at times, but it's held together by the strength of the great Tilda Swinton, who proves time and time again that she's never afraid of playing characters that teeter on outward and inward emotional catastrophe. Her performance here is one of the trickiest, complex, and inevitably heartbreaking she has ever given. She has to evoke in Eva a beleaguered woman with a child that she did not want, but now feels responsible for; you want to both sympathize with and condemn her all the same. It’s compelling how little dialogue there is in the film: Swinton has to relay what Eva thinks with gaunt body language, facial expressions, and a feebly conflicted state of mind. It's a titanic performance that rescues the film, I think, from its own ostentatious visual and narrative abstractness at times, which is more than enough to recommend WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN as a cold, sinister, and deep-seeded journey into mental oblivion.