We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

27 Jan


Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

If you’re feeling happy, like you’re finally in control of your life after a hard day or week, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is definitely not the film you want to see sometime soon. This is a film so bleak and disturbing that even the popular “slasher-film” genre would be considered watchable. If you’re happy or relieved right before watching this movie, this film will change that quickly.

However, this is undoubtedly a powerful film—skillfully-made and powerfully-acted. The horror adds to the drama that’s being presented, which makes the film more effective. There’s no reason why one shouldn’t feel unpleasant after watching this film. By that definition, I should probably hate it. But how can I ignore or pan a film that’s done well by the right people?

The story, based on the novel of the same name by Lionel Shriver, is told in a jumbled series of events, leaving us to piece everything together. But we figure out quickly what the central conflict is. As the film moves from past to present and back again, we see a woman named Eva (Tilda Swinton), who is not only depressed and practically lifeless, living like a zombie pretty much, but is also glared upon among society. In an early, disturbing scene, we see her walk down the street, minding her own business, when a woman she obviously knew in the past comes up to her and sarcastically asks, “Enjoying yourself?” Then she slaps her hard in the face and shouts, “I hope you rot in hell!”

How could this happen to a woman who keeps to herself? Well, we see flashbacks of what led to this terrible life, as Eva was married to nice-guy Franklin (John C. Reilly) and gave birth to her firstborn child Kevin. These flashbacks take up most of the movie, as we see Kevin as a baby, then a toddler, then a little kid, and then as a teenager. And right from the cradle, we know that something is definitely wrong with this kid.

To his father, Kevin is a nice, cute kid, but to his mother, Kevin is a budding sadist and knows exactly how to psychologically torture Eva, doing things so cruel that at one point, Eva can’t take anymore and throws her own son across the room, breaking his arm. But that’s just at his age of 6 or 8. When Kevin is a teenager, things get creepier, as we get more hints of his sadism—he loves to shoot his bow-and-arrows, he has an odd look on life that he isn’t afraid to express freely, and things get even worse when Eva suspects that Kevin might have been responsible for the glass eye the youngest daughter now has to wear.

It’s no secret that Kevin is a sociopath, as we see in present times the survivors of Kevin’s high school massacre. And this is Eva’s way of coping with it, and also having to deal with the people who despise her for what her son did. Some are hostile and brutal towards her, like in the scene I mentioned before; a few others, including a young survivor in a wheelchair, seem to understand that it wasn’t her fault.

From what we see in the flashbacks, it probably wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t even entirely Franklin’s fault either—he’s nice, attentive, somewhat ignorant but sweet-natured. However, you could make the argument that because he teaches Kevin to shoot a bow-and-arrow, that makes him responsible for Kevin’s mass murder. But you can tell the kid had a problem even before then, so it’s unfair to blame Franklin.

Lynne Ramsey, director and co-writer of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” makes brave choices here to make this movie far from ordinary. The past/present time-switches are one thing, but they’re also placed without pattern, which confuses but mostly keeps you wondering. There aren’t any parent/teacher meetings involving Kevin acting out in school—heck, we never even see Kevin interact with students. And despite the title, Eva never really does talk about Kevin with someone. Not with teachers, counselors, or even her own husband. Some choices Ramsey makes are somewhat grating (such as an early scene where Eva is participating in some sort of tomato festival, which looks like she’s soaking in a lake of blood), but other elements work very well.

Tilda Swinton, as Eva, is just perfect. You can easily feel the pain she’s going through as a person who is going through shock and simply can’t take anymore. Her son has committed a horrific crime, taken lives, and ruined lives (including hers), and now she’s stuck wondering if she really is to blame, or if she was the wrong woman to deliver the wrong child. Swinton’s portrayal is sometimes painful to watch, but that’s what makes it an excellent performance.

John C. Reilly is suitably wholesome, but the real supporting role to be noted is of course Ezra Miller as the little psycho himself, Kevin. If there was evil in this world, you can easily find it in this kid. Miller gives a creepy performance, keeping us uneasy as he (assumingly) secretly plans his attack. It’s a brave acting job.

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” is very bleak. Needless to say, this is definitely not for everyone. It may hardly be for anyone. This is not entertaining; not even by ordinary horror-film standards. But this horror-drama is far from ordinary. It’s here to give an effective emotional response, and it has succeeded all too well that even if it makes me feel uneasy, at least it did its job in effectiveness.

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