We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
written by: Lynne Ramsay
produced by: Jennifer Fox, Luc Roeg and Bob Salerno
directed by: Lynne Ramsay
rating: R (for disturbing violence and behavior, some sexuality and language)
runtime: 112 min.
U. S. release date: December 9, 2011 (limited) and January 20, 2012 (wide)
DVD/Blu-ray release date: May 29, 2012
I’m no child psychologist, but I’ve never really believed that there’s such thing as a “bad kid”. It seems more like a term used to label and file away a challenging or difficult child, than a way to better understand him or her. While I may not subscribe to such a view, there’s no denying how these bad seeds have had a noticeable presence in the movies. From the demon boy of “The Omen” to the petulant boy maniac of “Problem Child”, creepy or bratty boys (moreso than girls, for some reason – hmm) have always been around in cinema. Such an observance demands more indepth examination than you’ll find in this review. “We Need To Talk About Kevin” has yet another malevolent boy for the big-screen – in this case, as an unsympathetic antagonist to an equally unsympathetic protagonist – his mother.
Which reminds me of one viewpoint I do subscribe to, which is that not just anyone should, or can, raise a child. Unfortunately, this is usually only discovered after a child is born and nurture has taken its course. Such is the life situation we find Eva Katchadourian (Tilda Swinton) in – a woman who wasn’t prepared for the challenges and life changes that come with raising a child. Who is? The inconsolable crying, the sleepless nights, the diapers worn well past their appropriate time, and most of all – the consistent hostility and elaborate manipulations directed specifically at her – from her dear Kevin (played by two different actors as a child, as a toddler by Rock Duer and as a young boy by, Jasper Newell), her adorable (on the outside, at least) son.
She’s the only one who sees it, but yes – Eva’s son has it in for her and has worked her over since day one. He doesn’t want to end her, just to torment her and continuously sets out to show her that no matter what love she gives him, it will not be reciprocated. Did he sense her ambivalence/resentment about her pregnancy in her womb? Was it that early, or did he pick it up as a toddler?
Her obtuse husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly) doesn’t see it and he never has. By the time Kevin is a teen (creepily played by Ezra Miller “After School”), Franklin’s his relationship with his son is all surface. That’s probably fine with Kevin, since he doesn’t have all that much respect for Franklin anyway and instead merely uses him to side against his mother. We get the idea that Franklin may be clueless or intimidated by the boy and he may also be as detached from his wife as he seemingly is from reality.
Kevin’s hostility and destructive behavior doesn’t dissipate as a teen. He just becomes more defiant and rebellious toward everyone around him, but especially his mother. As much as Eva tries to keep some semblance of domestic and career balance afloat, Kevin is there at every turn to destroy her actions. When an unforeseen violent act at Kevin’s school takes place, Eva’s world is shattered even further. She now has to suffer the emotional aftermath of guilt, anger, and grief, in an attempt to build from scratch a new identity – free from the painful scar tissue of motherhood.
Director and co-writer Lynne Ramsay (“Ratcatcher” and “Morvern Caller”) takes an artistically bold and editorially challenging approach to the material by novelist Lionel Shriver, who wrote the book the film is based on. Rather than spelling everything out for us, Ramsay places us in Eva’s jumbled flashback memories, allowing us to build a narrative on our own. Like our own memories, these time jumps of Eva’s are often indecipherable. As we slip into clips of her once-romantic relationship with Franklin to scenes of her hopeless apprehension with Kevin and back to that fateful night at Kevin’s school, we realize that her memories are as indecipherable and random as our own, hitting us when we least expect it or as we think of something that triggers them. This approach may be perplexing at first, but eventually we get the idea that Ramsay wants us to experience what Eva has been through to get to the defeated and gutted woman we see her as now.
It’s easy to do that with an actress as expressive as Oscar-winner (“Michael Clayton”) Swinton, who has one of the most unique looks in film today. As expected, Swinton is quite remarkable here with what little she is given and that’s primarily due to the adaptation Ramsay has decided on. Shriver had written her book from Eva’s perspective, as letters written to her husband, and since Ramsay’s adaptation has a decidedly different delivery, it also lacks the intimate and personal details in those letters. But Swinton’s work rises above any of those challenges, providing a performance that could be from a silent film as she reacts with deep regret and disgrace throughout the film, using seldom words. Eva’s actions don’t always make sense and it is at times hard to have sympathy for her, but there are many aspects about being a parent that parents can relate to here.
However, the film does have some acting turns that are unfortunately quite disappointing. Kevin’s is borderline bizarre, especially when we get to the teen years where he is portrayed as a sociopathic behavior comes across as cartoonish. Part of this is the writing, which gives us no real motives for Kevin, but Miller’s work here is unintentionally humorous and at times just plain strange – especially in a final scene where we think he might be showing some remorse, but it’s just unbelievable based on what we’ve already seen. As much of a fan I am of Reilly, he feels kind of wasted here playing a one-note character whose obliviousness is baffling. I don’t know if I’d want him out of the film entirely, but it does feel like his presence brings up some glaring plot holes. Either way, it does make me want to read the book to see Shriver’s take of the character.
Overall, I found myself able to give into the film’s lack of subtlety and deliberately obscure methods, primarily because I was hooked by Ramsay’s filmmaking. She may hit us from all sides, laying it on quite thick at times, but I found it all unsettling, intriguing and horrific enough, that I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I haven’t seen any of her other films, but her style here is clean, her structure lean and cold – an almost meticulous choice that effectively accomplishes a lost detachment. Also noticeable is the way in which Ramsay deftly creates certain set pieces, such as the unnatural mini-golf game between mother and son and a stale office Christmas party where Wham’s “Last Christmas” can be heard as one of the most pathetic holiday songs ever. She seems to get all the right details for each specific atmosphere in an uncanny way.
Much of that has to do with the talent Ramsay employs in her abstracted endeavor. For example, Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey ( who also shot “Marvel’s The Avengers” – how’s that for variety?) juxtaposes a precise approach with a scattered style that fittingly tunes in to Eva’s unraveling disposition. The art direction lead by Charles Kulsziski (“Shame”) is almost painterly, invoking the contrasting colors of Edward Hopper’s work, while favoring scarlet as obvious symbolism. Composer Johnny Greenwood (guitarist for Radiohead, whose work was integral to “There Will Be Blood”) provides a moodiness score as well as unnerving sounds that really accentuate the uneasiness in many of the scenes. So, regardless of any shortcomings this feature has – and there are some glaring ones – I found myself really absorbed by this dreadful drama.
Although I am aware of the flaws “We Need to Talk About Kevin” has, my biggest problem is that no one ever really talks about Kevin. There’s certainly enough troubling behavior that warrants some serious discussion about the titular boy, but no one except his mother sees the need and even then, she just can’t seem to find the words – until it’s too late.