Beneath its catchy, offbeat title, We Need To Talk About Kevin is, perhaps, the ultimate contemporary nightmare. It’s a drama about parenthood infused with realism and moments of utter horror.
Tilda Swinton stars as Eva, a travel writer whose career is put on hold when she falls pregnant with her first child, Kevin. Happily married to Franklin (John C Reilly), Eva determines to put her old life behind her and conform to the ideal of becoming the perfect mother, even though she still dreams, one suspects, of flying off on another overseas adventure. But as soon as Kevin’s born, there’s an enmity between mother and son; the boy has a coldness around the eyes, and Eva’s attempts to bond with him are rebuffed with a precocious talent for scorn and mockery.
As the film flicks back and forth in time, spanning the course of almost two decades, we gradually learn that Eva’s son will grow up to commit an atrocious act that will destroy both his own life and his mother’s. We see Eva living alone in a tiny house, vandalised by angry neighbours and far from the palatial dwelling she and her husband moved to years before.
In adapting Lionel Shriver’s novel of the same title, director Lynne Ramsay expertly folds one scene into the next, picking out vignettes of Kevin’s childhood and moments from Eva’s post-traumatic grief. It’s a brilliant example of the unreliable narrator in fiction, since the entire film is built from Eva’s subjective recollection of events.
A moment in a supermarket, where a grieving parent smashes the eggs in Eva’s trolley is perhaps the most telling. Rather than throw them away, Eva takes them home and makes an omelette out of them, and endures the sensation of the shells grazing the inside of her cheek. In an echo of an earlier scene where Kevin bites his nails and places them on a table in prison, Eva plucks the bits of eggshell from her mouth and lays them on her plate. The memories Eva goes over and over are like the eggshells in her mouth – picking over them is an act of masochism.
Lynne Ramsay’s direction is striking, her use of motifs and foreshadowing often brilliant; the opening scene, an aerial shot of a Tomatina festival in Spain, is one example. It sets up Eva’s character – a free-spirited travel writer – but also provides an eerie, surreal and oblique sense of foreboding. A great throng of revellers writhes and tussles in a river of crushed tomatoes – the first of the film’s repeated use of the colour red, hinting at grim future events. Only in one scene, which involves Kevin insouciantly chewing on a lychee after a particularly nasty family incident, does the film’s use of imagery seem a little too on-the-nose.
Much has been made of the young Ezra Miller’s performance as the teenage Kevin, and it is indeed a cool, lizard-like performance: Kevin is the ultimate moral blank – distant, unknowable. It’s significant, perhaps, that we see nothing of Kevin’s school life until the film’s conclusion.
The film’s true lynchpin, however, is Tilda Swinton, in what is surely the finest performance of her career to date. That she failed to gain even a nomination at the Oscars is a travesty – her mention at the BAFTAs at least redresses this terrible imbalance in part. Swinton plays Eva with restraint and quiet energy. As Ramsay’s narrative cuts between different stages of Eva’s life – traveller, beleaguered mother, social outcast – Swinton skilfully portrays every nuance, and Eva’s thwarted attempts to rebuild her life are all the more heartbreaking because of Swinton’s ability to express the pain and the utter determination behind her actions.
All the time, the film asks the questions that Eva’s asking of herself: at what point did the cracks begin to show in Kevin’s psyche? What events caused him to commit such a monstrous act? Ramsay offers no comforting answer, but the hints are everywhere.
John C Reilly’s father is by turns distant and absurdly ineffectual, refusing to believe that Kevin’s anything other than a beaming cherub, and apparently incapable of disciplining him, even in the face of quite shocking behaviour (something Eva is, admittedly, guilty of herself – they are a couple dominated by their child). And what are we to make of Eva and Franklin’s house, apparently empty apart from Kevin’s toys? As a teenager, Kevin’s room is almost bare, as though some sort of emotional cold war is taking place.
We Need To Talk About Kevin is many things: a character study, domestic horror, heartfelt drama. That it’s both compelling (and often hypnotising) rather than merely depressing is due to exemplary acting and expert filmmaking. Ramsay and Swinton hold the screen from the film’s striking opening to its quiet, shattering climax.
The extras on the Blu-ray are disappointingly few, consisting of little more than a trailer and a brief selection of interviews. Nevertheless, We Need To Talk About Kevin is well worth buying in HD for one reason alone: it deserves to be seen and heard on the format.
The colour and texture in Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is a delight to behold – when it’s not downright unsettling, that is – and Jonny Greenwood’s stark, distorted soundtrack is appropriately hackle-raising.