(L-R) Actors Ezra Miller, Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly arrives at the 'We Need To Talk About Kevin' premiere during the 64th Annual Cannes Film Festival at the Palais des Festivals on May 12, 2011 in Cannes, France. (Getty Images)more pics » The Bottom Line
Should you see it?
Few films probe taboo subjects at all, never mind one as compelling as the evil nature of a child.
A confrontational nightmare of a film, We Need to Talk About Kevin is equal parts horror, family drama, and psychological case study. Of course, the subject matter would need to be this profound to interest Lynne Ramsay, the exceptional Scottish director who essentially took a 10-year hiatus after winning acclaim for Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar in 1999 and 2002 respectively.
Ramsay was lured back to the screen by Lionel Shriver's 2003 book We Need to Talk About Kevin, which she adapted along with her husband, Rory Kinnear. She calls the resulting movie a "subjective horror story."
Shriver's book was conceived as a series of letters from Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) to her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly). The couple discuss their young son, Kevin, who exhibits sociopathic behavior from an early age, and as a teenager, murders classmates and teachers in a killing spree at his school. Franklin acts as the boy's apologist, but Eva sees her son's true nature and reflects on her own.
Ramsay abandons the epistolary format of the novel, jumping from before and after the central murders to tell the story from Eva's perspective. The director explores opposite ends of the emotional spectrum through the expressionistic use of red, alternately punctuating the film as a symbol for death and anger on one side and love on the other. Eva's life is nothing but red.
The first scene of the film shows Eva reveling at La Tomatina, a festival in Spain which is essentially an enormous food fight. Covered in bright red tomato juice, Eva is alive and ecstatic. She is dreaming.
She awakens on her couch and finds the outside of her little house has been vandalized, splattered with red paint. As Kevin's mother, she is no longer a human being. She is a murderer's mother. Slapped viciously by another parent during a later encounter, Eva also has her eggs crushed in the market. We soon find out why she endures this hostility and solitude as she visits Kevin in the juvenile detention center nearby. She is living her life only for him.
Eva is complicit as the killer's mother. Ramsey does a fine job of subtly blaming her, but she does blame her. Swinton's stark performance dares us to empathize with Eva. Right or wrong, the blame rests on the shoulders of the parents whenever a Columbine-like massacre takes place. Near the end, Eva and Kevin sit in prison. Kevin rubs a scar on his arm and Eva asks if he remembers how he got it. As a child, Eva had thrown Kevin against a wall in a fit of frustration, breaking his arm. He tells her, "It's the most honest thing you ever did."
As J.D. Salinger once illustrated, phoniness is the
universal impetus for teenage angst (at least in America). Kevin may have been born evil. He may not have. What becomes clear is the child believes Eva hates him from an early age. He sees her motherhood as counterfeit, despite whatever her true feelings are.
Eva is not the prototypical mother. Early on, we see her exhausted by her colicky infant. Lying on the couch she begs Franklin not to pick Kevin up as she had finally gotten him to sleep. Later, she stands in the middle of a city street with Kevin in his carriage. The roar of a jackhammer drowns out the screaming child, and Eva remains there, improbably relaxed.
However, Kevin is a disturbed little boy. In a memorable scene that brings to mind creepy little Danny Torrance in The Shining, the toddler sits spread-eagle on the floor as Eva rolls a ball to him. He stares at his mother contemptibly and seems to be studying her. The mother/son dynamic recalls Rosemary's Baby. Eva may not be mother of the year, but she does relatively little to incur Kevin's wrath. She is left utterly helpless by her son's brilliant, yet evil, nature.
Teenage Kevin is played with a vicious intensity by Ezra Miller, who, despite a few ham-handed scenes, conquers the role with the furious joy of a psychotic. Since before his eighth birthday, he has played his father for a fool, while testing the limits of his mother's love. This calculated game is cunning and terrifying, playing on real fears parents have about their offspring. How could anyone hate his or her child? This question hovers constantly in the periphery of the film, which methodically deconstructs the idea that a parent's love is unconditional.
Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey uses subtle framing techniques and deliberately long shots, coupled with Jonny Greenwood's haunting score to accentuate the film's menacing tone. In a key scene, suspense is built to an unnerving edge as Eva is invited by the linen drapes of her living room to look out her window. The only audible noise is that of the sprinklers outside. Slowly Greenwood's score comes in as we see Eva's reaction to what she's seen. The reveal is made all the more astonishing by the film's elegant production.
Kevin remains an extreme example of the hubris of youth. We all experience the humbling realization we're just like everyone else, but Kevin's moment of clarity comes at a huge price. In the end, We Need to Talk About Kevin leaves the audience to ponder who is to blame without convicting anyone, while convicting everyone.
See photos of the cast of We Need to Talk About Kevin: