We Need To Talk About Kevin. It’s an odd name, really, but that didn’t stop Lionel Shriver’s novel from becoming a bestseller. Even now, as an adaptation from director Lynne Ramsay hits the big screen, the title still has a compelling sense of mystery, but its the film’s constant subversion of expectations that makes it utterly distinctive.
The plot centres on the relationship between Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) and her son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), cutting back and forth in time between a post-traumatic present, where Eva lives alone, and the past, where Eva and her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) settle down to raise a family. After Kevin is born, Eva’s previous life of freedom and adventure is slowly given up in favour of full-time motherhood; but parenting proves particularly unpleasant, as Kevin grows from toddler to teenager, and turns out to be a real terror of a son – culminating in a horrific episode which upsets not only the family’s life, but that of their local community, too.
The film’s central character drama slowly unfurls, hazily moving between dream and memory, using hyper-real cinematography and dislocated sound and image to deeply unsettle the viewer. As its premise would suggest, there is darkness at the film’s heart, but the way this is manifested is consistently surprising. The basic plot calls up various genre readings – problem child horror, psycho-thriller, domestic melodrama – but Ramsay darts from one to the other, dodging tropes at every turn.
Instead, the film offers a startling portrayal of motherhood, played with extreme vulnerability by Swinton. As she is meticulously brought under the tyranny of her son, after an endless series of passive aggressive snipes and grand manipulations, we see a woman not only at war with her child, but the expectations of her family – as seen in Franklin’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge Kevin’s sinister nature.
Likewise, the narrative structure recasts each moment in a chilling light, as we see Eva on both sides of the mostly unseen traumatic act. We see the effect, but are also invited to relive, over-analyse and scrutinise the past along with her. All those moments, where her patience slips, or accidents happen, are seen through a prism of guilt and confusion.
Such narrative and thematic aspects are remarkably well-executed, and the film approaches the anxieties of parenthood in a particularly moving, yet no less disturbing way than broader, more expressive examples, from Rosemary’s Baby to Eraserhead. Instead of flying off into shocks, scares or surrealism, Ramsay uses Eva’s character as an emotional anchor, with her frustrations, thwarted ambitions and growing paranoia as key reference points.
Crucially, where other female-focused thrillers often toy with madness and hysteria as plot devices, We Need To Talk About Kevin’s protagonist is never undermined in such a way. Her problems are involving and believable, and Swinton gives a career-best performance here, seen especially in both her haunted attempt to re-enter society, and the mild euphoria of minor victories in the ongoing battle with her son.
Kevin’s character, too, is pitched just shy of caricature. As an infant, his dark-haired mop and unnerving stare give off more than a hint of The Omen, but as a teenager, where Miller comes in, he becomes a real force of nature.
The young actor is quite astonishing; his Kevin is cold, calculated and catlike – in equal parts Hannibal Lecter and Heath Ledger’s Joker, with a Tyler Durden-esque disregard for suburbia and social niceties. However, placing such a nihilistic pseudo-terrorist in a domestic setting, no matter how stylised, gives him a unique dimension – and while the film wouldn’t dare explain away Kevin’s behaviour, sufficient complexity and conflict are hinted at. Indeed, his broadsides against the American Dream are supported by the film’s rather kitschy, timeless mise-en-scène, its bleak look at the vapid world of travel agencies, supermarkets and mini golf courses, and the fact that the family’s house doesn’t look lived-in at all, and more resembles a pristine model home.
So while the two lead performances really sell the film, We Need To Talk About Kevin succeeds because it finds a compelling middle ground between its numerous themes, styles and moods. It is remarkably inspired, restrained filmmaking, only flying off the handle into needless, obtuse indulgence in a few cases.
For the most part, though, this is a film which is rich in atmosphere, confident in execution and provocative in its themes. You need to see it. Then we can talk about We Need To Talk About Kevin.
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