Some movies clue you in from the first scene that you’re in for a different experience. We Need to Talk About Kevin achieves this and falls into the category of really different. The opening looks like a blood orgy, with Tilda Swinton slathered to the hilt in red, but turns out to be some sort of tomato festival with gobs of crushed slime running red all over huddled masses. It’s not clear if this is some sort of flashback or a surreal dream sequence, and frankly it doesn’t matter. Scottish director Lynne Ramsay, responsible for the underrated Morven Callar and Ratcatcher, likes to give us a lot to work with. Here she uses the ever-present color red, symbolizing the stigma of never being able to wash the blood of tragedy from your hands.
Kevin is about a demon seed who was drunkenly spawned by Eva (Swinton) and Franklin (John C Reilly) who weren’t ready for a kid. Franklin adapts while Eva sees the child as an invasion into her entire existence. They’re a professional couple; he’s a photographer, she’s a travel agent, and things seem to be okay except there is something wrong with their son Kevin (Rock Duer) who grows into an obstinate brat (Jasper Newell) then a threatening, calculating teen (Ezra Miller). Questions arise, such as how and when do you know that you’re raising a monster?
Modern day Eva wears a glassy stare, the result of some huge emotional burden. She is the target of abuse from her community. We are jettisoned by way of flashbacks between two periods—before and after the catastrophe—to see how miserable her life has become.
With the “this is what happens when we don’t talk it out” premise, Ramsay keeps up the surreal portrait of dysfunctional hi-jinks in a way that’s both frustrating and compelling. Even though things are eventually spelled out, we still feel like we need to put the jigsaw puzzle pieces together. Sometimes the most effective events happen off screen and we see emotional turmoil unfold through facial expressions. It’s like Funny Games, sans torture, meets The Omen sans Satan. The wickedness is Kevin who acts out as the result of feeling unwanted by mom even as she tries to mask her hostility with superficial kindness. Ultimately, she can’t stand having a kid, especially one this evil.
And is Kevin ever a diabolical little shit. He plays favorite son to dad, who turns a blind eye to any bad thing mom says he does. Eva fights back with another pregnancy and soon the sister has an eye patch. We realize nothing good can come of this household, we just don’t know quite how bad it will get. As soon as we see the pet hamster we know it is not long for this world. The biggest mistake is dad buying Kevin a bow and arrow set. Tension builds through the parents’ miscommunication to the inevitable fact that Kevin is going to do something heinous.
Swinton is once again at the top her game; she commands the screen through a weirdly introverted performance. Her portrait of a woman’s deteriorating state of mind is mesmerizing, as she wanders zombielike through life in a state of shock. It’s nice to see Reilly (who’s getting fatter all the time) in something dramatic again, but one too many comedies have made him hard to take seriously.
Kevin makes you want you to jump in the screen and either spank or scold. But mainly that’s what you want to do to these parents for their inability to communicate. Ramsay was quoted as saying, “Kevin is one of the last taboo subjects: You're meant to instantly love your baby from the moment he's born, but what if you don’t?” And what if that baby grows into someone terrifying? Well this dark flick doesn’t answer all the questions of what it would be like to live with a kid capable of doing something horrific, but it sure makes you think. We Need to Talk about Kevin is a weirdly frightening and strangely beautifully warped vision. Those of us who see this flick will definitely be talking about Kevin.
We Need To Talk About Kevin
3 1/2 Stars
Starring Tilda Swinton, John C Reilly, Ezra Miller, Rocky Duer
Directed by Lynne Ramsay