We Need to Talk about Kevin (United States/United Kingdom, 2011)December 08, 2011
Tilda Swinton is a chameleon unafraid of any subject matter, no matter how hard-hitting or difficult. She has appeared in one of the most emotionally crushing films I have ever seen, Tim Roth's The War Zone, and her performance in We Need to Talk about Kevin is equally as bruising. A meditation on the pain suffered by a mother when her child turns out to be a monster, We Need to Talk about Kevin is the perfect tonic for holiday cheer. Want to blacken an evening and turn a smile into a frown? We Need to Talk about Kevin can do it in less than two hours. This is a depressing motion picture, yet the issues it addresses are real, especially in a world where the term "childhood innocence" is losing all meaning.
Kevin (Ezra Miller), the teenage son of Eva (Swinton) and Franklin (John C. Reilly), is a mass-murderer. One day, he barricades himself inside his high school gym and uses his schoolmates as living targets for archery practice. An expert bowman, he cuts down everyone in sight until the police break in and take him into custody. The full extent of his murderous rampage does not become known until later. His mother must endure the rage of the victims' parents. As she tries to put her life back together - a seemingly impossible task - and reconcile herself to what Kevin has done, she flashes back on the entirety of his life - from his conception to his birth to his childhood. She recognizes that the warning signs were there from his early life, but never could she have imagined how the bad seed would germinate.
We Need to Talk about Kevin is easily 2011's grimmest motion picture, without a moment's levity to keep things bearable. Even the "happiest" scenes - such as those in the farthest-back flashbacks before Kevin is born - are weighted down by the understanding of what will come. Director Lynne Ramsay presents the story in a non-chronological fashion, skipping back and forth through time in a manner that is sometimes confusing, but not without reason. The story becomes less about what happens (we know that from the beginning) than about whether it's possible to understand why it happens. In the ongoing debate between genetics and environment, Ramsay is an advocate for the former. For the most part, Eva is an attentive mother; except in one instance (when he's sick), Kevin shows nothing resembling affection for her. After committing his mass murder, he bows theatrically to the throng of horrified onlookers before the police force him to his knees.
The wellspring of sadness from which Ramsay draws is one any parent can relate to. When a child is born, the mother and father invest their hopes in that tiny infant. Without knowing what he or she will become, they give of themselves - time, money, love - to provide a nurturing environment. If something goes wrong, even if there was nothing they could have done to change the outcome short of strangling the baby in its crib, the weight of guilt is crippling. And it's not merely self-immolation; the community joins in, insisting that the sins of the son be visited upon the mother and father. In a real sense, the most grisly victim of Kevin's crime is Eva. Is it better to die with an arrow through the chest or live with a crushing burden?
It's evident from early childhood that something is very wrong with Kevin (despite the assertion of a doctor to the contrary). His parents - especially Franklin - see but do not want to believe. When they look at their son, they do not perceive the sociopathic behavior; they envision an idealized version of the boy, an innocent scrubbed clean of the monstrous urges that will lead him to commit a crime that makes Columbine seem well-reasoned. Even as Eva becomes aware that Kevin is gripped by evil appetites, she fails to take decisive action.
Swinton plays Eva as a gaunt zombie - a woman who stumbles through a life that has become as colorless as the tiny house in which she lives. Her dreams are drenched in red (a color repeatedly employed by Ramsay as an unsubtle metaphor) - the blood of guilt that infuses her subconscious. She, like those who have defaced her house and car with crimson pain, has come to believe in her own culpability. In flashbacks, she has a fuller figure but never seems truly happy. She is a despondent woman who has been saddled with tribulations to rival those of Job. Her joy at being given menial clerical employment is heartbreaking. The scene when she visits Kevin in prison, where no words are spoken, is so uncomfortable as to be almost unwatchable.
John C. Reilly, who has returned to his bread-and-butter roles after a flirtation with juvenile comedies, reminds us of why he is regarded as one of the best "everyman" character actors in the business. As Franklin, the sometimes-absent father who sees only the good in his son and is blind to the signs of trouble, he is well-cast. Ezra Miller has the perfect demeanor for Kevin. There's something charismatic about him, but he radiates creepiness and cold (especially in his eyes). If there's such a thing as evil, it has taken up residence within the boy.
It goes without saying that We Need to Talk about Kevin is not for all viewers. It is for those who watch movies not merely for entertainment but for something deeper - an honest emotional reaction, perhaps, even if that emotion is uncomfortable. Parents, I think, will find this more harrowing that those who do not have children, since it will hit closer to home. Like Beautiful Boy, this movie approaches a difficult situation from a non-sensationalistic perspective. The films are complimentary rather than redundant, but both ultimately address similar themes and each is worth viewing on its own terms by those unafraid of productions that challenge without providing escapism.
We Need to Talk about Kevin (United States/United Kingdom, 2011)
Cast: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller, Ursula Parker
Screenplay: Lynne Ramsay & Rory Kinnear, based on the novel by Lionel Shriver
Cinematography: Seamus McGarvey
Music: Jonny Greenwood
U.S. Distributor: Oscilloscope Pictures