Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin

kimberlee rossi-fuchs looks at the gripping drama starring Tilda Swinton …

Director Lynne Ramsey’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, an adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s best-selling 2003 novel of the same name, is a difficult, complicated film about a woman drowning in grief and guilt after her teenage son stages a killing spree at his high school. Since its Cannes debut, the film has generated a lot of positive buzz, both for Tilda Swinton’s likely to be nominated performance as the boy’s mother, Eva Katchadourian, and for the taboo subject matter, as the film asks the questions, what if you love, but don’t like, your own child and to what degree is such a parent then implicit in that child’s eventual transformation into a monster?

Shriver dedicated a great deal of her epistolary-style novel to talking about Kevin, as the luridly compelling particulars of his atrocities, both great and small, are provided in excruciating detail and ruminated upon extensively in Eva’s retrospective letters to her estranged husband, Franklin. In contrast, the film’s focus is not on the events described and dissected in Eva’s missives, but rather on Eva herself and her altered sense of identity and new reality after her son’s horrific act.

The garrulous style of the novel is replaced with stark silence, as swaths of film roll by sans dialogue, an effect which is used in flashbacks to emphasize Eva’s discomfort around her difficult son and later her alienation from a community that perceives her as somehow culpable for his crime.

The story unfolds in a non-linear fashion, skipping back and forth between scenes from the past eighteen years of Eva’s life, all of which center around Kevin in some way. Images of her courtship with Franklin, her frustrated attempts at parenting, and her harassment at the hands of an outraged community are weaved together like a swirl of memories, suggesting Eva’s internal attempts to find a root cause for or understand her son’s violence. Ramsey’s imagery is striking, as several shots capture Swinton looking skinny with arms outstretched, as though being crucified.

The color red is used glaringly and effectively, as well, from the opening shot of carefree, world traveler Eva gleefully pushing through a tomato-splattered mob at Spain’s La Tomatina festival, to the red paint thrown at her home by angry neighbors, to the deep shade of red lipstick she chooses as she begins to put her life back together late in the film. These images not only hint at the bloody carnage Kevin creates, but in attaching them to Eva, often physically, they also suggest both Eva’s role in shaping him and a maternal bond with her wicked child.

As the less than doting mother, Tilda Swinton’s performance is all it’s been hyped up to be and she nails every aspect of the character — the awkward, uncomfortable expectant mother, the bewildered and frustrated parent, and finally the dazed, skittish shell of her former self. Swinton’s seamless transition from an attempted soothing smile to a resentful grimace in the screaming face of her colicky infant is just perfect, as is her genuinely thrilled smile when, weakened by sickness, Kevin actually shows some warmth towards her.

Ezra Miller, whose edgy, leonine looks are eerily similar to Swinton’s, turns in a strong performance as teenage Kevin, one that elevates the role above the character’s sometimes cartoonish, Omen-esque villainy. All sneers and jittery adolescent energy, Miller’s Kevin conveys a precocious, misanthropic intelligence coupled with a viciousness bubbling beneath the skin like a snake waiting to strike. John C. Reilly is sufficient as Franklin, essentially a stock husband character whose sole purpose is to turn a blind eye to his son’s behavior and alienate his wife.

While Ramsey’s film is certainly compelling, fans of the novel may be disappointed by her less than faithful adherence to the source material and the glaring omission of several scenes and side characters. For example, Eva’s tragic daughter, Celia, is reduced to a footnote and the details of the actual murderous rampage are left out entirely.

While the plot could have benefited from a little more action, these omissions serve to shift the focus from the eponymous bad seed to the tortured Eva and the ongoing nightmare she faces in Kevin’s wake. Kevin’s ultimate explosion isn’t laid out explicitly because, for Eva, it represents more than a single incident, a culmination of a long-simmering trouble. Kevin’s atrocity has transcended any linear timeline of her life, as all of the events before and after have been tainted by it so that Kevin himself has become a sulking, meandering evil that looms large in Eva’s ongoing, psychological horror.

Ramsey’s We Need To Talk About Kevin is thus Eva’s story and thanks to a masterful performance from Tilda Swinton, it’s a truly haunting and harrowing one.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Director Lynne Ramsay’s first narrative feature in nine years is uncomfortably tense but worth savoring, particularly because of Tilda Swinton’s devastating lead performance. It’s dark, grim, and very disturbing, however, I could not take my eyes off of it. Great review. Check out mine when you get the chance.

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