We Need to Talk About Kevin

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/10/12 15:39:18

"You need to see Tilda Swinton."
5 stars (Awesome)

At no point during "We Need to Talk About Kevin" are the words of the title actually spoken, but it's not like it would have made a difference if they were. There's just nothing you can do about some situations - they play out in horrifying slow motion, and even when the endgame seems inevitable, most people have a hard time actually believing it. It's terrible, but in the skilled hands of director Lynn Ramsay and star Tilda Swinton, also engrossing.

Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) was once a happy and successful travel writer/editor, but that was before Kevin. Now, in the wake of what her teen-age son (Ezra Miller) has done, she's a pariah in her small Connecticut town, doing filing at a storefront travel agency and hoping that having red paint thrown at her house is as bad as her day gets. What makes it worse is that this didn't entirely come out of the blue for Eva; Kevin has been a monster from the start, but has had his father Franklin (John C. Reilly) snowed, manipulating him practically since birth, only showing his true face to Eva. Inevitably, their opposing views of their son will make their marriage a slow-motion train wreck, one more casualty of Kevin.

Or is it in fact more complicated? Almost the entire film is seen from Eva's perspective, and while there is nothing that particularly hints that she is an unreliable narrator who changes details to make herself look less culpable (or more so, depending on her mood), what Ramsay shows us is designed to get the audience thinking in a way similar to Eva. Sure, some kids may just be born bad, but does that come from the same genes as give Eva her own short temper, and does that mean the townspeople are right to treat her like she's the monster? As psychotically difficult a child as Kevin was, and how he occasionally manipulated Eva into feeling direct guilt for specific actions, she does some things that a parent clearly shouldn't - if she'd done better, would things have been different? It's impossible to know, and Ramsay makes sure it can't be otherwise: She and co-writer Rory Kinnear (working from Lionel Shriver's novel) draw few lines between particular events in Kevin's childhood and the young man he becomes, with the most obvious being so far-fetched that it's as impossible to credit as it's meant to be.

With Eva in nearly every scene, Tilda Swinton has got to be good, and she is, not surprisingly given her body of work, great. The movie cuts between Eva before and after a major turning point in her life, one which causes her circumstances, attitudes, and emotional baseline to change completely, and yet it's quite easy to see that her core is still the same, despite her being shaken to it. There's a hardness to both Evas that masks a strong desire to get along, and that sort of paradox is at the cornerstone of Swinton's performance: We get the sense that Eva is a tightly controlled, formidable woman, and yet we constantly see her at the mercy of powerful, assaulting emotions. It's genuinely amazing to watch Swinton put us through the wringer with Eva from minute one.

She's joined by a good cast, most notably Ezra Miller, who plays Kevin as a teenager. He's pure, angry malice, able to hold his own with Swinton while still showing us a guy who is raw and still easily impressed with himself. Also worth mentioning are Jasper Newell and Rock Duer, who play Kevin when he's younger; Ramsay coaxes performances out of them that suggest evil kids, whereas many psychopathic children in movies tend to come across as too precocious, imitations of adults. There's also nice work from John C. Reilly, whose character's obliviousness at times recalls his more comedic roles, but with just a sharp enough edge that he must be taken seriously.

Lynn Ramsay, meanwhile, maintains an incredible level of focus, never once going for twists when crushing, horrible inevitability is an option. She cuts back and forth in time in a way that lets the story come out clearly, only keeping the audience guessing on the exact chronology once or twice. If there's one fault, it's the occasional use of ironic music and sound choices, which might be clever in another movie, but this isn't really a pop-culture commentary picture. Still, that doesn't come close to undercutting the movie's effectiveness.

To my friends and family with young kids: Don't see this movie for, like, twenty years; you don't need to even think about the sort of doubt Eva has in her life. Everyone else, though, should hope its unexpected Oscar snub doesn't hamper its distribution too much; the work of Swinton and Ramsay in particular is mesmerizing.

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