We Need To Talk About Kevin
2011, R, 112 min. Directed by Lynne Ramsay. Starring Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly, Ashley Gerasimovich, Jasper Newell, Rock Duer.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Feb. 3, 2012
Nature, nurture, or just plain evil? That's the question at the heart of this savage and sorrowful portrait of a mother attempting to survive after her teenage son goes on a premeditated killing spree at his high school. Lay aside everything you thought you knew about random, inexplicable tragedies of this sort; director Lynne Ramsay and Tilda Swinton have reconfigured everymom's nightmare, and the result is one of the most heartbreaking films of the year.
Ramsay (Morvern Callar) shatters the linear nature of her narrative to mirror the all-consuming grief and confusion of Swinton's Eva, a fortysomething mother who, it is implied, came to motherhood somewhat reluctantly after a youth spent writing for travel magazines and hopping around the globe in that pursuit. We first see her in the throes of ecstasy at some faraway religious pilgrimage, drenched in what at first appears to be blood. (It's not.) She’s a free spirit, and when she finally settles down with a good and understanding man (Reilly), there's the sense, in Eva’s mind and ours, that she has removed herself from her true calling. And yet, she appears to be happy in her newfound ordinary personhood.
Then she gives birth to Kevin (played as a toddler by Duer, as an adolescent by Newell, and as a teenager by Miller). From the start it's an almost Omen-esque battle of wills between mother and child. Kevin refuses to potty-train, throws tantrums, and defaces everything and everyone – except his father, who just can't seem to grasp the doomy chaos in his own household – until Eva can take no more. Yet she does. Is the problem post-post-postpartum depression? Not hardly: This kid, with his vacant yet terrible gaze and his angelic good looks, makes Patty McCormack in The Bad Seed look like Nick Cave, loverman. Miller's portrayal of an amoral, insidious teen from hell is pitch-perfect. He's lovely to look at, but there's a devil inside. And it's a calculating one, fomenting wrongness from cradle to grave.
Swinton, as Eva, is flat-out amazing. Since much of the film unfolds in flashback with Ramsay dropping in small, tantalizing bits of information slowly, we're steadily presented with an achingly painful picture of motherhood – and childhood – gone utterly haywire. Shunned by her neighbors, her home defaced by teenage boys, Eva nevertheless maintains her dignity in the midst of the worst thing possible. And it never ends.
We Need To Talk About Kevin is a modern American horror story, and one that in the wake of Columbine and other apparently random teen atrocities, strikes me as tremendously brave. Ramsay has chosen to focus not on the awful events but on the deep, red scars those events leave on those who survive. It's a disturbing film on many, many levels, but beautifully shot (by Seamus McGarvey) and shot through with a horrific sense of false hope. The kid is not all right.See "Mother's Little Monster," Feb. 3, 2012, for an interview with Tilda Swinton and Lynne Ramsay.