If you can’t watch Lynne Ramsey’s 2011 film* We Need To Talk About Kevin as a horror movie, you might not like it. It’s some difficult subject matter that has to work a very fine line with its tone. But I’ve found that if you watch it as you would a horror film, laughing when the movie wants you to laugh and growing tense when it turns the screw on you, then its emotional gut punches carry uncommon power. This is a film of remarkable skill and technique, but it may be difficult to watch twice.
Tilda Swinton plays Eva, a woman who is trying to pick up the pieces of her life. In the film’s first ten minutes it becomes clear that her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) has committed some kind of atrocity at the local high school, and her husband (John C. Reilly) is estranged from her as a result. The film unwinds as a series of flashbacks, as Eva trudges through her new life, while she remembers how things went with Kevin from the very beginning. The source material, a novel of the same name by Lionel Shriver, takes the form of letters written by Eva to her husband after the event. Neither book nor movie contains the title phrase, but they hardly need to. Kevin is so much a problem for Eva that some Movie Klubbers suggested that the film should be shown as a double feature with The Omen or The Bad Seed.
Taken purely as an exercise in camerawork, this is not a movie that will blow you away. Ramsey’s compositions are acceptable and occasionally they deliver the haunted nature of Eva’s present-day life, but not always. The Halloween sequence, among others, is one where I think Ramsey was aiming for a level of visual haunting that just does not happen. This is a handsome film, but it’s playing around in the same genre as The Silence of The Lambs or Rosemary’s Baby. “Handsome” just isn’t enough.
The skill and technique in this film is mostly in the acting and characterizations. Kevin’s sociopathy is exactly where the challenge lies. It’s important that the audience never like him or sympathize with him. If he’s humanized too much, then the movie would be unspeakable, especially in the eyes of people who have endured real-life school shootings. On the other hand, if Kevin is too evil then the movie could just devolve into camp. It wasn’t until the ending of the film that I realized how perfect the writing of Kevin had been: he’s just a stupid kid, in the same ways that I was at his age. The only difference is that my ego convinced me I could pass the AP Biology exam, and Kevin’s has him thinking he could be the next Hannibal Lecter.
This is what makes Swinton so brilliant. The actors who play Kevin (Jasper Newell plays him as a young child, and Rocky Duer as an infant) have the sort of look that gives the audience the creeps no matter what they’re doing. It’s not until right before the atrocity that Eva believes Kevin to be without help; prior to that, there are some scenes where she thinks he’s unreachable and some where she thinks she’s this close to understanding him. So, the confusion about whether or not she should take Kevin seriously as a dangerous person – confusion that has mutated into crippling survivor’s guilt in the present day – plays out perfectly on Swinton’s face.
And yet, she’s also very funny in the film, and that humor had to be a conscious choice on Ramsey’s part. Sometimes Eva’s situation is so absurd that you can’t not laugh. The idea that her son could be pure evil seems so ridiculous that it’s easy to laugh at her frustration with Kevin at first, especially since Kevin seems so normal around his father. Then, during the present-day scenes, it’s absurd that Eva has to live like a normal person with all of the tragedy that she feels responsible for. Consider the scene that takes place during Eva’s new job’s Christmas party: the incredible squareness of all of Eva’s co-workers, with their awful drunken dancing and lame holiday costumes, is so bizarre that laughter is practically the only response. Of course that scene has a dark conclusion, because Eva can’t get away from her guilt over Kevin, but prior to that it’s a perfect example of how you have to laugh to keep from crying.
Rather like the chilling 2012 movie Compliance, We Need to Talk About Kevin is most effective because it displays an understanding of human nature that is a little too good, and audiences might be in denial about how good it is. The community’s hatred of Eva seems excessive – He seemed to come out of the womb hating her! What could she possibly have done? – but in the real world that community backlash is exactly what the parents of every school shooter face. The basic questions that Eva is challenged with – who is my son, how much of him is me, what did I do to shape him – are the fundamental questions that every person asks when they have kids. Ramsey needs an extreme situation to show just how difficult those questions are to answer.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Technically, We Need to Talk About Kevin was a 2011 film, as it had short runs in New York and Los Angeles in December 2011 so that it would be eligible for the February 2012 Oscars. Most readers probably saw it in a theater during 2012.