We need to talk about making sure that no new or expecting parents ever see “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”
Lynne Ramsay’s disturbing film, based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, is quite simply every parent’s worst nightmare brought to life on screen. There are images in this movie I’ve deliberately tried to scrub from my brain — unsuccessfully.
But while “Kevin” is the opposite of “entertaining” to watch, there’s no question it is an extremely well-made film. In particular, Ramsay’s decision to jumble the chronology, and somewhat stylize the events surrounding an awful Columbine-like incident — without showing any on-screen violence, just the buildup and aftermath — makes the film feel unsettlingly dreamlike. The prettier the image, the uglier the content.
For example, the color red repeatedly pops up, jarringly bright, suggesting the horrors of the school incident. The movie opens with shouts and the images of a crowd of people covered in red. But it’s tomato juice, part of a joyful dream-memory that Eva (Tilda Swinton) is having of a long-ago trip to Italy.
Then she wakes up, and the windows of her house are covered in angry swaths of red paint. Something happened a couple of years earlier, something that has made her a pariah in the community, but Ramsay twists our guts by withholding the details, so we imagine the worst. All we see is Swinton’s face, rubbed raw with self-loathing and guilt, as she scuttles from her house to her job in a dingy little travel agency like a field mouse in the brush, hoping not to be noticed. It’s an incredible performance by Swinton.
Ramsay cuts back and forth from this sad existence to years earlier, when Swinton was a happy travel writer married to a good man (John C. Reilly) in New York. She gets pregnant, and she’s ambivalent about the idea of being a mother. When her baby son Kevin is born, we sense resentment curdling underneath her exaggerated smiles at the baby, as well as the fear that deep down, she’s not cut out for motherhood.
That is the nightmare — that we won’t be good parents, and that our ineptitude or conflicted feelings will somehow poison our children. And boy, in Kevin’s case, does it ever. Even at the age of 2, he’s a malevolent little monster, glaring silently and hatefully at his mother.
By the age of 8, he’s learning how to cruelly manipulate his mother, keeping her in a perpetual state of siege as he mocks her and commits acts of petty sabotage. And by the time he’s 15 (played by Ezra Miller) he’s a brilliant, full-fledged psychopath, who has worn his mother down to the bone. Meanwhile, Reilly’s father and the couple’s young daughter are oblivious to Kevin’s true nature.
So, deep down, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a horror movie, Swinton the desperate heroine who is the only one to realize there’s a monster in their midst. But the fact that the monster is her son and that she loves him — or should love him, anyway — gives the film a lot of its complexity, as well as its tension.
And, unlike a traditional horror movie, “Kevin” is all tension, with no cathartic release, other than the final, terrible knowledge of the depths of Kevin’s evil, and the Oedipal nature of what drives him to act.
I realize that, in praising the film, I’ve probably talked most readers out of seeing it. That’s understandable — there are parts of it I wish I hadn’t seen. But it’s an undeniably powerful piece of art that engages fully with its disturbing subject matter.