Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsey's We Need to Talk About Kevin — a 2011 title that was one of last year's most violently disagreed-about movies, finishing eighth in British magazine Sight & Sound's international critics' poll but inspiring an equal amount of disdain — is a deeply unpleasant and potentially powerful film that alerts viewers early on to brace themselves.
A woman, who turns out to be travel writer Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), is held aloft in an ecstatic red-drenched bacchanalia that, upon further research, seems to be the Tomatina Festival in Buñol, Spain, but to the unknowing viewer could easily — and intentionally — be mistaken for an ocean of carnage. As Eva awakens in her darkened, lonely home it's unclear — and will remain so — whether she was reliving a happy memory or experiencing a vision of her own damnation.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a portrait of the post-tragedy life of a woman whose teenage son has committed a Columbine-style atrocity. The film is set a year or so after the incident, and Eva is living alone in a state of self-imposed exile, virtually incapacitated by her guilt and grief and seemingly just beginning to try to re-engage with a world from which she's learned to flinch.
In purely structural terms, Ramsey tells the story skillfully, showing Kevin's story (played by Ezra Miller as a teenager) from pre-birth to the day of the attack as a series of memories that constantly intrude on Eva's attempt to maintain her life. All sorts of daily events — from the mundane to the traumatic — trigger memories, and the film weaves its scrambled backstory around Eva's present with a convincing sense of operating within Eva's psyche.
We Need to Talk About Kevin could have unsettling things to say about the downside of parenthood — the way children can overwhelm your world — and there are moments big and small that go there: The film's finest scene depicts new mother Eva, near catatonic in the face of her newborn's constant crying, pushing her stroller up to a street worker operating a jackhammer, savoring, for a moment, the white-noise bliss of heavy equipment drowning out her son's cries. Later, a potty-training breakdown results in a spasm of parental punishment that fills Eva with instant horror and regret, suggesting a capacity all frustrated parents can relate to guarding against.
But whatever kernel of an interesting, unnerving movie there could be here about a mother discovering she isn't up to — in fact, doesn't want — the job, We Need to Talk About Kevin ultimately flinches from it, going instead into territory that's somehow both darker and easier.
A big problem with the film is that, when it comes to the fundamental nature vs. nurture question — bad seed or bad parenting? — that animates Eva's flashbacks, it feels like We Need to Talk About Kevin has its thumb on the scale. These flashbacks are positioned as Eva's memories, so that if the son seems too much like Damien from The Omen even as a toddler or her husband unfathomably naive about the son's problems, perhaps that's the way Eva chooses to remember it. She also second-guesses herself through myriad moments of awful parenting. But when we finally meet Kevin in the present tense, outside of Eva's memories, as she visits him in prison, the embodiment of evil on display is no different from the depiction in Eva's head.
Swinton is towering here, in her usual way, but her icy, alien demeanor adds to the film's archness. It might have been more interesting to see a more, well, normal — mundane, if you will — actress traversing the same emotional gauntlet.
Ramsey deploys Swinton's intensity through a series of garish, horror-camp notes — this film is more drenched in red than Sissy Spacek on prom night in Carrie and is similarly awash in mocking, ironic musical cues (Buddy Holly's "Everyday," the Beach Boys' "In My Room"). The result is a black-comic portrait of an utterly devastated, shell-shocked woman, in which Eva's smallest moments of happiness are all swiftly corrected. It's a commanding work, but I found it to be ultimately hollow, artificial, and too smug — a film that can't help but compare unfavorably to Gus Van Sant's more sensitive, mysterious, and sad post-Columbine elegy Elephant.
We Need to Talk About Kevin
Opening Friday, April 6th
Studio on the Square