Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin

***originally written 25 October 2011***

I need to talk about Kevin. Directed by Lynne Ramsay and based on a best-selling book by Lionel Shriver, We Need To Talk About Kevin is a striking and problematic film that treads a tightrope walk between the sinister and the outright unbelievable. It wins out just, just, on the strength of its commitment. The confidence of Ramsay’s directing and the strong performances she has evoked from the cast make the piece hold together… kind of. Let me elaborate.

Kevin is told out of sequence, zigzagging back and forth through time mainly to conceal a shocking act of violence, and partly because this dramatic crescendo would otherwise occur somewhere in the middle. Tilda Swinton plays Eva, and if you’re no Swinton fan then this’ll be tough going for you as she’s in practically every scene. In the ‘present’, Eva is a hated figure in her local community, ostracised by her peers. Her ramshackle box house is vandalised without apparent sympathy. When a woman strikes her in the street, it is Eva who has to apologise, not the other way around.

This withered, exhausted version of Eva is all the more disarming when compared to her more vivacious globe-trotting younger self captured in the flashbacks which grow to dominate the film. We understand that Eva previously had an easy going husband (John C Reilly in another of his effortlessly effective dramatic roles) and a beautiful home, that their life was good and loving. Until Eva became pregnant. The resulting child, Kevin, comes to divide the household, and more importantly for Eva, suppress her dreams of travelling.

Kevin is a cruel and despicable child, pretty much from the get-go; relentlessly screaming as a baby, wearing Eva to the edge of her tether, then stoically uncooperative as a toddler. A battle of wills consumes their relationship. There have been many, many troublesome children in the movies, especially in the horror genre, but none have been portrayed with such outright soullessness as Kevin. Kevin hates his mother, and will go to any lengths to gain the upper hand on her. And likewise, Eva hates Kevin. For his contrariness. For thwarting her own dreams of a different life.

Which leads us to the troubling question of who is to blame for what happens next? Is it husband John C Reilly, his eyes clouded to Kevin’s darker nature? Is he too lenient on the boy? Can Eva really be the scapegoat for her son’s hideous nature? Is he provoked by her, and if so, is that any excuse? Is evil born or created? Is there something to be said for the vacuous nature of our society and culture? Director Ramsay gives us no answers, leaving us only with ever-growing dread as the severity of events start to escalate.

Ezra Miller’s steely performance as teenage Kevin brings about a new level of dark happenings. And by the point it appears, the arrival of a hamster into the family unit only brings a resigned “uh-oh” from the audience. We already know it’s not long for this world. About 4 minutes, actually.

In fact Kevin’s behaviour is so foul, so one dimensional, that it practically brings the film to its knees. It’s simply too much to believe at times, especially the ways in which the young Kevin manages to so artfully articulate his hate. Powerful and striking as it is, it stretches credulity to its limits. Even the rare – very rare­ – moments when Kevin starts to behave agreeably is only in service of a greater betrayal down the line; the set-up for another act of cruelty. It all leads to an awful event that feels sadly inevitable, thanks in part to the film’s non-linear structure.

Fortunately there is much to relish in the technical aspects of the film. Between them Lynne Ramsay and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey present us with one beguiling, arresting image after another. Every shot is interesting in some way or another. The framing frequently offbeat and curious, the colours rich and full. It sits alongside the likes of The Tree Of Life and Drive as one of the year’s most beautiful films to look at. Jonny Greenwood’s score is likewise interesting and effective without ever feeling invasive. Tilda Swinton’s central performance carries the film remarkably well, even if much of it resonates on a look-at-me-not-blinking level. There’s likely an Oscar nomination in here for her. Likewise, Miller is an interesting find, and his physical resemblances to Swinton surely one of Ramsay’s happiest accidents.

We Need To Talk About Kevin is uncomfortable viewing. It’s an interesting, well paced, but flawed experience. And the flaws come from the sheer black-heart of the film. There’s no relating to Kevin. Perhaps the filmmakers and actors here have worked too successfully in creating a monster. There’s nothing for the audience. Toward the end, Kevin bows to imaginary applause in his school gymnasium. It’s sick, inappropriate glee. And no doubt the audience’s disapproval is exactly what Ramsay had in mind.

Kevin’s final interaction with his mother sees her finally ask him the question; why? His answer – and he does give one – is about as dumbfounding as it could be.

Score:  3.5

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