We Need to Talk About Kevin
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay
Written by: Lynne Ramsay & Rory Kinnear (screenplay), Lionel Shriver (novel)
Starring: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller and Jasper Newell
Mothers are a fixture in many serial killer canons, in real life and in film. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is probably the most infamous momma’s boy killer, though she never makes an actual appearance. We Need to Talk About Kevin, a startling fever dream of a movie from Lynne Ramsay, examines the mother of a boy who locks his school up and kills several other students.
That mother, Eva Khatchadourian, is played by Tilda Swinton with exactly the kind of wayward complexity and urgency you expect from the great actress. Ramsay assaults the viewer with a kaleidoscope of terror, as Eva’s life switches from her short-haired days raising her son Kevin (played as a troubled child by Rock Duer and Jasper Newell and as a creepy teen by Ezra Miller) to her mid-length days living in shame after his crime.
By showing Eva’s family beforehand, we are forced to critique every aspect of Eva and, to a lesser extent, her husband Frank’s (John C. Reilly) parenting. She never wanted to be a mother, and from an early age she raises Kevin almost at arm’s length. In a decidedly awkward touch, Kevin appears dark-eyed and murderous even as a child. He is a tamer version of The Omen’s Damian, though this is not supposed to be that type of horror.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is effective when it stays with Lynne in the aftermath, because Swinton is so excellent at conveying this mother’s detached horror without slipping into melodrama. Judging her parenting is easy to do when we’re presented with that time she shoves Kevin after he misbehaves and he breaks his arm, or when we see her embrace her newborn daughter more lovingly than she ever did her son. Kevin is a monster from the get-go, so it seems almost cruel to make her do these things.
Ramsay remains very embedded within the family’s life, though only develops Eva as a character. John C. Reilly is laughable in all the wrong ways as her husband Frank, a man who remains blind to his son’s evil and treats his wife like she’s always to blame. She sometimes is, especially early on, but the teenage Kevin is a despicable creature.
As played by Ezra Miller, he is an unexplainable evil that does this senseless killing simply to spite his mother. Eva is shunned by the community, and even slapped by an angry woman on the street. She stays in this town as if to accept her punishment. Instead of a scarlet letter, though, her house and car are vandalized with crimson paint that she constantly works at cleaning off.
The movie plays out structurally like last year’s Blue Valentine, and has the same haphazard success rate. Swinton’s performance is consistently good, but she is only a real character after the shooting. This structural rotation hinders the movie’s emotional impact greatly, exchanging feelings of shock and disgust at Eva in Kevin’s younger years and ones of sympathy after the fact.
Kevin never reveals to his mother why he actually did the shooting, and their visits in prison are mostly silent. It was largely the same way at home, with Kevin lighting up as soon as his father walked in the door and acting almost angelic. There is one scene when he is sick as a child that he clings to his mother over his father, but it does little to build on their otherwise one-dimensional relationship.
Eva forces interaction and bonding activity as empty gestures and motherly obligations, and Kevin sees right through them. With no one to turn to after he commits his heinous crimes, she stays inside and medicates herself with pills and wine. She manages to land a job at a travel agency, though no one there warms up to her except a creepy co-worker trying to abuse her solitude.
Ramsay is intent on piling on that abuse throughout We Need to Talk About Kevin, as if to signify that she wishes to throw tomatoes after telling everyone else to stop. The gritty aesthetic she employs often rotates between showing Eva in both close-up and distant shots, though always alienated and alone.
Swinton’s decision to take on this juicy role signifies her dedication to her craft, though Ramsay’s filmmaking undercuts its impact greatly. Like Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine, she appears to be giving two different performances, which is the thematic intent but would’ve been more effective if the structure were linear. This movie could’ve worked as an assault on the senses if Ramsay weren’t so intent on insisting that this huge spectrum of emotions were interchangeable from scene to scene. Rage, grief, joy and pity flow from one scene to the next, and as a result, the movie is ultimately as numb as Swinton’s shamed mother.