We Need to Talk About Kevin

We’re introduced to Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) when somebody throws a bucket of red paint over her car and the front of her house. We see her applying for a low-level office job, ignoring the whispers and dirty stares of everyone in the room. On her way out, a random passerby angrily yells at her and slaps her in the face. Eva barely reacts, to any of it. We wonder if she is even alive.

How and why Eva got to this state is at the core of We Need to Talk About Kevin, based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, co-adapted to screen and directed by Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar), who does slow, mournful, and contemplative like few others. We’re cued in early on to Eva’s circumstances – her son Kevin (played at three different ages by Rock Duer, Jasper Newell, and Ezra Miller) has gone on a psychotic killing spree at his high school. The world at large blames Eva, but only because she’s there (Kevin himself now in juvenile prison), and people need to blame somebody.

WHOA!....that's a lot of Tomato Soup.

With Eva, we flashback to different points in the past to see where it all may have gone wrong. In earlier times, Eva was a famous and successful travel writer. She falls in love with and marries the affable Franklin (John C. Reilly). They have a child, though she doesn’t particularly want one. Kevin might be a bad seed from birth. Eva might be causing (or at least contributing to) this through her coldness, her indifference, her anger. Franklin always takes Kevin’s side over hers. Against all common sense, Eva has another child, Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich), partly as science experiment (am I really such a bad mother?), partly just to have someone on her side for once. Things go badly. And then things go badly. And then things go very, very badly.

Watching the story unfold, I decided early on that if the movie could not convince me why Eva would still be living in this town after everything that happened, why she would not simply move far, far away, change her name and start life anew, then it had failed. By the end, I was convinced. The movie reveals just enough to give some credible theories, without beating anyone over the head with them. Yes, she wants to stay close enough to the prison so that she can visit Kevin (but again, why?), but it’s never just that simple. Partly, she is punishing herself. Partly, she is in denial – even aggressively so, we realize, once we see her living situation. Mostly, it’s that her mind has all but completely shut down. In the beginning, we wonder if she is even alive. At the end, we’re still wondering.

In the incredibly challenging role of Eva, Tilda Swinton is phenomenal – but when is she ever not? John C. Reilly, while properly infuriating and likeable as the oblivious husband and father, feels a bit miscast. I’ve seen and liked him in dramatic roles before, but he just doesn’t fit in this world. It may be purely physical, but his very presence is far too “goofy” for the rest of this movie. The three actors playing Kevin, meanwhile, are all very good, particularly Ezra Miller – he certainly shows the cold, calculating, evil side of the boy, and if there is a lack of any further levels to his character (until pretty much the final moments of the movie), that is likely by design of the script, not a flaw of the acting.

It’s the whole nature vs. nurture argument, of course, except not only does the movie not offer any answers, it doesn’t even offer much evidence. Eva is a cold mother. Kevin is just awful, from birth. That’s pretty much it. But We Need to Talk About Kevin isn’t about making arguments, but watching someone make them – weighing the sides, wondering to themselves, is this my fault? Did I do this? How can I have prevented this? And when all the masks finally come off in the end, we realize with Eva that in all the time we’ve spent jumping to defend one side or the other, we’ve missed the real point of the story entirely – yes, Eva has been trying to find some connection with Kevin, but in the end we realize that Kevin, in his own mysterious and twisted way, has been trying to “speak” to her, too.

We Need to Talk About Kevin might best be approached as a horror movie, but one without any supernatural elements, thrills, or jump-out-at-you moments, only pure horror in the sense of dread, sadness, help- and hopelessness – like watching a train running over a kitten at 4 miles an hour (or watching a Michael Haneke movie – your choice). The emotions are raw, the blood real, the story upsetting and aggravating and will punch you in the stomach and bruise your soul, and without any actual emotional payoff in the end, you may leave the theater asking yourself, why did I just pay money to go through that?


Tilda Swinton:


Posted on January 19, 2012, in Film Review and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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