Film Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin
We Need to Talk About Kevin, the bracing new film by acclaimed British filmmaker Lynne Ramsay adapted from the novel by Lionel Shriver, is a movie about eyes. Eva (Tilda Swinton) has big brown ones that are in turn piercing, furtive, and fearful. Her son Kevin (Ezra Twitter Miller) has bottomless, black, reflective eyes -- the sort one expects to see on predatory animals and sociopaths. Both look to the floor during visiting hours at the prison.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is largely told through the mother’s perspective, opening on a grief-stricken Eva in a medicated near-catatonia, her life a blur of menial work and community scorn in the aftermath of a macabre act of violence perpetrated by Kevin at the local high school.
The narrative oscillates between past and present, acting as a sense-memory jigsaw puzzle that illustrates in fragments the earlier life Eva shared with husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), affectionate younger daughter Celia, and an older son Kevin. From the outset, Kevin and Eva have a strained dynamic. As an infant he cries at her touch, appeased only in the arms of his father. As a toddler he is quietly contemptuous and as a teenager he is unpredictably menacing. Each one of his actions is a conscious flouting of Eva’s maternal concern to keep him fed and clothed; he plays with his food instead of eating it, he shuns her when she attempts to dress him, as a teenager he opens his Christmas presents conspicuously shirtless. For her part, Eva is short-tempered at his lack of affection, beaming resentment at the child for whom she put her career aside. Their bond is genetic, their relationship adversarial.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a marvel of tone and aesthetic, a film that further solidifies Lynne Ramsay’s reputation as a one of contemporary art house cinema’s most exciting figures. Ramsay populates the screen with her distinct and immaculately composed images, elegantly threading colour and geometric motifs across the film’s temporal jumps. The blood red of the crime scene is the bucket of red paint strewn across Eva’s rundown bungalow is the red of Kevin’s jelly sandwich. Ambulance sirens, car headlights, and digital alarm clocks all bleed into twined circular color swatches as the focus softens, a visual quietly evoking the shape of eyes.
Ramsay and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey succeed in creating a distinct past and present, while also allowing the film to coalesce as an organic visual whole. Ramsey also continues to put pop music to innovative use, in this case mining classic Americana from roots music to the Beach Boys. As Eva drives home on Halloween night she is anxious and alone. Children parade the streets in costume; their monster masks a grotesque near-distortion. Strikingly, it is Buddy Holly’s chipper “Everyday” that hums along on the soundtrack. This sequence, among others, recalls some of the more evocative scenes in Ramsey’s excellent sophomore feature Morvern Callar (2002).
For all its aesthetic triumphs, We Need to Talk About Kevin is finally a film that succeeds by virtue of its three central performances. Tilda Swinton is a marvel, fully embodying Eva from globetrotting writer to suburban mother to emotionally devastated travel agent. Ezra Miller plays the teenaged Kevin with a sly smirk and an unflappable demeanour. When he chooses to speak, it is cutting and bloodless. In the film’s latter half Miller sustains a presence so unsettling that Kevin’s ugly future seems nearly preordained. In a bit of inspired casting, Swinton and Miller can also at times play nearly the mirror image of each other, both with skeletal features and cropped black hair. Finally, John C. Rilley, an unlikely choice at first pass, is pitch-perfect as the fun dad type who still calls his son “buddy” well past childhood, completely oblivious to a mushrooming psychosis.
As a story concerned with deviant behavior, and, in part, killings in a high school, We Need to Talk About Kevin distinguishes itself from similarly themed films by leaving the violence almost completely unseen. Lynne Ramsey chooses to elevate the response above the action itself. A tableau of horrified parents outside the high school becomes more essential than the bloodshed inside. Kevin's actions are designed to elicit his mother’s reaction, a reaction that he in turn derives satisfaction from witnessing. So who is ultimately to blame for his behaviour? Ramsey explores the question, but knows better than to presume an answer. Any potential solutions lie in the cyclical, ambiguous space between this mother and her son.