We Need To Talk About Kevin
Arty thriller thinks the kids are not all right
We Need To Talk About Kevin
Directed by Lynne Ramsay
Cast: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller
Evil children are a reliable movie trope. They’ve served well as the covertly malignant villains in films from 1956’s The Bad Seed to 1964’s Children of the Damned to 1976’s The Omen to 2009’s Orphan. Now, U.K. director Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar) takes the genre in an arty, esoteric direction with her darkly unnerving but deeply flawed domestic nightmare We Need To Talk About Kevin.
Stork-like indie muse Tilda Swinton (Orlando, Thumbsucker, I Am Love) is ever in the camera lens as Eva Khatchadourian. Ramsay’s light-on-the-dialogue, heavy-on-the-flashback style chops her story up like Cobb salad. About 20 minutes into the fractured film, we’ve managed to gather some basic information: Eva is navigating her life in a paranoid, medicated haze. She’s trying to find a job, aiming well below her skill level. Her suburban neighbors hate her like poison. And her son is in jail. What brought her to this low state?
Once a globe-hopping author, Eva’s ambitions run head-on into a brick wall when she becomes pregnant by her affable husband (John C. Reilly). The couple moves from trendy New York to boring suburban nowhere. Soon, Eva gives birth to a son, the titular Kevin. From the day of his birth, Kevin is trouble—wailing incessantly whenever mom is in the room. Mom goes so far as to hang out at construction sites, just to drown out the sound of her own child.
Kevin could be seen as a metaphor for the fears and frustrations that all parents feel upon giving birth. This familiar mode of thinking is an extension of Ray Bradbury’s “The Small Assassin” concept—the idea that babies are metaphorical (and possibly literal) monsters single-mindedly sucking the life out of their mothers. (See FOX’s “The Family Guy” for another oddball application of Bradbury’s story.) But this Kevin kid (played at three different ages by three eerily similar actors) is far too literal a character to work as a metaphor. He’s not troubled. He’s not even particularly evil. He’s just the world’s biggest asshole.
As the years pile on, little Kevin finds new and interesting ways to torture his poor mother: Pooping his pants well beyond toddlerhood, destroying everything in the house, interrupting mommy-and-daddy special time and generally glaring at his mother with squinty malintent. As the narrative accrues, Ramsay’s inspiration seems to be drawn from the same frightening and confusing headlines Gus Van Sant used as the spark for his equally fascinating-but-flawed teen drama Elephant. And yet, Ramsay’s oppressively arty style frustrates both narrative and thematic goals.
The film is shot beautifully. The lensing is sharp as a diamond, lending a glossy edge to the disturbing subject matter. For all its style and artifice, however, the point of this cautionary tale remains elusive. The script provides no motivation for Kevin’s actions and no reason why the mother would be so cartoonishly demonized by everyone for them.
It’s not even particularly clear why the script would choose to focus all its attention on Eva and not Kevin. It could be that Kevin is supposed to be a mirror of Eva’s own fears and frustrations. Maybe it doesn’t matter what Kevin’s problem is. Maybe it’s more important to study Eva’s fractured reactions to her son’s manipulatively awful behavior. Is she too indulgent, too hard, too timid, too loveless, too unprepared? I honestly can’t tell. Perhaps—and I’m just winging it at this point—Kevin is a figment in the mind of an increasingly unstable woman. (The two do share similar haircuts.) This last theory is an intriguing one, I suppose; but it’s hardly supported by the film’s horror-story plot. Untangle all the jumping around in time, the intentional obfuscation and the film-school assiduousness, and it’s a pretty simple story: Mom gives birth, kid goes bad.
Ramsay is a skilled filmmaker. She’s an expert at creating a mood, and she certainly nails that here—be it an ominous shot of billowing curtains or a tour of a teenager’s unnaturally spotless bedroom. Watching We Need To Talk About Kevin, one can’t help but mourn what could have been done with Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones—a project Ramsay spent five years working on before it was handed to and ultimately muddled by Peter Jackson. A lot of thought went into We Need To Talk About Kevin, and Ramsay conjures up some intriguing nature-vs.-nurture debates amid the shocks. For some, the film will invoke strong emotions and a palpable sense of dread. For others, the blank characters, overly fussy direction and unrealistic ambitions kill what could have been a horrifically tense family drama.