Lynne Ramsey's We Need to Talk about Kevin puts me in a difficult position. On one hand, the film is a brilliantly staged masterpiece, featuring some of the year's most daring performances. Without a doubt, it is a searing and powerful work of art. On the other hand, I could never bring myself to sit through it ever again. I left the screening feeling emotionally battered, its hopelessness bordering on oppression. I felt genuinely harmed.
And yet, I still feel it is worth recommending. The film is so skillfully made, the performances so natural, I truly believe that the experience is worth it. Tilda Swinton plays Eva, the mother of a boy named Kevin with some very serious problems. The film's trailers are wise to sidestep the details of his issues. In fact, do not even watch the trailer. You'll want to go in fresh. Although, new or expecting parents should avoid this film at all costs. You've got enough on your plate already.
As Eva raises little Kevin, the early warning signs immediately start to bubble to the surface. She takes notice, her distain for motherhood growing with each passing diaper. All of this transpires unbeknownst to John C. Reilly, who plays the husband/ father role with a casual obliviousness. Unlike those cheesy horror flicks where the evil kid only acts evil when the protagonist is around, every moment here feels plausible. Reilly's character loves his son very much, never seeing Kevin the way that Eva does. That is, until it is too late.
We learn little about Kevin, save for the surface details. He has his mother's brown hair. Okay. At the age of 6, he was (dare I say symbolically) given a toy bow and arrow by his father. Hmm. As a teenager, he wears effeminate belly-shirts that slightly expose his mid-rift. Huh. These shirts are never mentioned or discussed, but are numerable enough to be a character choice. What do these details tell us? We never see him interacting with children other than his young sister. We are forced to play detective, vainly searching for an explanation.
The film's poster shows Kevin in his mother's womb, via a green-tinted ultrasound photo. What could have happened to that baby to turn it into a devil spawn like Kevin? Even as a child, his eyes seem to flicker with intelligence far beyond his years. At one point, he sneers at Eva: "Just because you're used to something, doesn't mean you like it. You're used to me." He is 6 years old at the time.
Ezra Miller portrays Kevin as a teen, his hair and facial features almost mockingly similar to his mother. I imagined Kevin fixing his hair this way intentionally to remind Eva of exactly where he came from. This might not be the most subtle film of the year but it is easily the darkest.
Tilda Swinton has played this type of role before (The Deep End), but never this well. We feel bad for her character, but would not want to linger in her presence. She inhabits a world of constant dread. Example? The scenes of her work life would be heartbreaking in any film. But in this film, given everything else that happens, they draw blood. The fact that her boldly unglamorous performance was overlooked by the Academy Awards is an unsurprising oversight. This isn't the kind of film the Academy likes to shower with praise but, Swinton's performance certainly should be.
Ramsey is also no stranger to this type of material. Her first full length feature, Ratcatcher told the story of a young boy who accidentally caused the death of a school friend. Set in Ireland during the early '70's, the film was bleak. But not as bleak as We Need to Talk about Kevin. Her choices are brave ones, intended to jar and disturb audiences. Most striking is her ability to do so without the over-the-top cruelty or brutality of Brillante Mendoza's 2009 Cannes award winning snooze-fest, Kinatay. Filmmakers like Mendoza could learn a thing or two from Ramsey.
In reference to his film The Shining, Stanley Kubrick said that his intentions were to make a film that "hurt people". I think Lynne Ramsey's We Need to Talk about Kevin would make Stanley very proud.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.