A film review by Craig J. Koban March 16, 2012


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

Directed by Lynne Ramsay / Written by Ramsay and Rory Stewart Kinnear, based on a novel by Lionel Shriver

WE 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. 

The 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 evil. 

The 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). 



The 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. 

Eva’s 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.   

WE 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. 

The 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. 

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