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-
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-
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.
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