We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
Suffocated by Motherhood, and a Child Whose Hold Still Lingers
By A. O. SCOTT
Published: December 8, 2011
“Every parent’s nightmare” would be the evening news boilerplate description of “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” Lynne Ramsay’s disturbing movie about the mother of a child who goes on a killing spree at his high school. That trite phrase is accurate in an almost technical sense: Ms. Ramsay (who adapted Lionel Shriver’s novel with Rory Stewart Kinnear) follows a kind of dream logic in telling a chronologically splintered story, weaving patterns of associated images and sensations into an intense and claustrophobic web of fear.
But the vividness of its effects makes the film very much a particular parent’s nightmare, pitched at the extreme boundary of everyday anxieties. Tilda Swinton, who plays the anguished mother, is far too specific a screen presence to be an easy audience surrogate. Much of the queasy fascination that the film exerts is the result of her uncanny ability to play against any imaginable type.
Her character, Eva Khatchadourian, is too complicated for pity, projecting a mixture of cold poise and extreme vulnerability that makes her predicament especially awful. We watch as she loses everything except her dignity, but it is precisely that noble, steely pride that places her just beyond the range of a sympathy that she would most likely refuse, in any case. Video: An excerpt from a TimesTalks interview with Tilda Swinton
“We Need to Talk About Kevin,” though it evokes real-life atrocities like the 1999 Columbine school shootings, is less a psychological or sociological case study than a horror movie, a variant on the bad-seed narrative that feeds on a primal (and seldom acknowledged) fear of children. What if they turn out wrong? What if we can’t love them? What if they refuse to love us? These worries are rarely dealt with in the child-rearing manuals, but they hover over modern nurseries like the ghosts of ancient fairy-tale curses.
Eva, a travel writer who once enjoyed a life of free-wheeling Bohemian bliss — we catch glimpses of her in ecstasy at religious festivals in India and at ease in picturesque European cities — is brought down to earth by pregnancy and motherhood. With her amiable, practical husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly), she abandons a downtown loft for a house in the suburbs and sacrifices her wanderlust on the altar of responsibility.
Does her son appreciate the sacrifice? That can hardly be expected, but little Kevin (played in toddlerhood by Rock Duer and latency by Jasper Newell) has been born with a filial ingratitude sharper than any serpent’s tooth. More than that, he possesses, from infancy, an active and demonic hostility toward his mother. His incessant crying when he is in Eva’s care comes to seem like the opening salvo in a long campaign to wreck her happiness and destroy her peace of mind.
He refuses to be toilet trained well into middle childhood, messes up her most precious possessions and quietly sows seeds of discord between Eva and Franklin. The arrival of a younger sister (Ashley Gerasimovich), far from easing the tension in the family, only gives Kevin new opportunities to show what a manipulative little sociopath he can be.
The adolescent Kevin is played by Ezra Miller, whose narrow eyes and high cheekbones suggest more a clone of Ms. Swinton than a child she might have had with the soft-featured Mr. Reilly. Mother and son, both lean, watchful and dark-haired, are like a pair of predatory reptiles incongruously housed with the fluffy, friendly animals. Their antagonism is its own kind of bond, which makes its fulfillment almost incomprehensibly terrible.
The film shuttles back and forth between Eva’s life in the aftermath of Kevin’s crime — when she is alone and in disgrace, shunned and abused by the people she had never wanted to live among in the first place — and the events that led up to it. Horror movies tend to be relentlessly linear, moving in a crescendo of suspense that grows out of our panicked curiosity about what will happen next. Ms. Ramsay, with ruthless ingenuity, creates a deeper dread and a more acute feeling of anticipation by allowing us to think we know what is coming and then shocking us with the extent of our ignorance.
There is a measure of sadism in this method, to be sure, but also a lot of craft. In her previous features, “Ratcatcher” and “Morvern Callar,” Ms. Ramsay showed a mastery of mood and atmosphere, an ability to make narrative film feel like an intoxicating and abstract fusion of painting and music.
“We Need to Talk About Kevin,” with help from Seamus McGarvey’s fever-flushed cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s heartsick, throbbing score, saturates the senses like illness or bad weather. It is beautiful and demonic, like Kevin himself, and the bad feelings it induces are likely to be accompanied by helpless and stricken admiration. You may well need to talk about it afterward, but then again, you may be left speechless.
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Language and intense violence.
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN
Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
Directed by Lynne Ramsay; written by Ms. Ramsay and Rory Stewart Kinnear, based on the novel by Lionel Shriver; director of photography, Seamus McGarvey; edited by Joe Bini; music by Jonny Greenwood; production design by Judy Becker; costumes by Catherine George; produced by Luc Roeg, Jennifer Fox and Robert Salerno; released by Oscilloscope Laboratories. At the Angelika Film Center, Mercer and Houston Streets, Greenwich Village. Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes.