We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

UK, US / 112 minutes / color / BBC, Film Council, Oscilloscope, Code Red Dir: Lynne Ramsay Pr: Luc Roeg, Jennifer Fox, Bob Salerno Scr: Lynne Ramsay, Rory Stewart Kinnear Story: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003) by Lionel Shriver Cine: Seamus McGarvey Cast: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell, Rocky Duer, Ashley Gerasimovich, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Alex Manette, Kenneth Franklin.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Like a painting: Tilda Swinton as Eva, desolated

In one sense a meditation on the roles of nature and nurture in the emergence of sociopathic individuals; in another an extraordinarily chilling depiction of the noir nightmare told with all the twisty nonlinearity expected of a neonoir.

All we know at first is that something dreadful has happened in the fairly recent past of solitary suburb-dweller Eva Khatchadourian (Swinton), something that causes neighbors to abuse her and even daub her house in red paint, something for which she feels such guilt that she suffers their torments in silence rather than retaliating in any way.

Slowly we piece together her earlier life with good-natured but insensitive husband Franklin (Reilly), their son Kevin (played successively by Duer, Newell and Miller) and their much younger daughter Celia (Gerasimovich). As a baby Kevin screams incessantly, so much so that Eva sometimes pauses beside roadworks so that the jackhammers, drowning the noise of her infant, give her some moments of precious respite. A slow developer, Kevin grows up with one seeming mission in life: to make his mother’s existence a misery. Periodically she snaps under his relentless pressure, on one occasion pushing him with such force that he breaks his arm—an offense which he covers up from others, ever thereafter using it as a means to blackmail her.

Around people other than his mother, notably his father, he’s a charming, affable, ordinary kid; whenever Eve tries to tell Franklin of her concerns he assumes she’s merely voicing her neuroses. Eva is the only one who knows what really happened to Celia’s gerbil, stuffed by the teenaged Kevin into the sink disposal unit, and to Celia’s eye, destroyed when Kevin poured sink-unblocker into it. The sole activity that seems to bring Kevin out of himself is archery; it is this activity that he will use to commit the hideous crime that lies at the heart of Eva’s nightmare.

The movie requires patience for the first half-hour or so, as curious events occur with seemingly no rationale; the fact that the staging and cinematography are so superb throughout makes this perseverance easier than it might have been. Once we begin to cotton on to the remorseless inevitability of the past tragedy, however, and our imagination is given rein to speculate as to just how horrific and irremediable it may have been, the narrative, fragmented as it is, becomes riveting—even more so because, while we see Kevin’s psychological sadism face-on, the physical consequences are always kept off-screen.

Further major contributors to the movie’s grip are the astonishing performances by Swinton as the punchbag mother, herself become alienated from ordinary human relationships because of the enduring effects of Kevin’s malice, and by Miller as the teenaged Kevin himself, a monster whose evil is all the more effective because, outwardly, he could be anyone’s kid, yours or mine. The casting’s exceptional, too; it’s hard to believe the three actors playing Kevin aren’t brothers of different ages, and that Kevin isn’t related to Swinton.

The movie, which had a somewhat rocky production history due to funding difficulties, won a plethora of accolades around the world and was nominated for the Palme d’Or; oddly, it was ignored entirely by the Academy. The score was by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. The movie’s critical reception was in general enthusiastic, and sometimes more than that. Roger Ebert concluded his rave review in the Chicago Sun–Times (January 25 2012) thus:

Swinton told me of a line in the script that wasn’t used, wisely, I believe. After you see the film, think about it. She asks Kevin why he didn’t kill her. His reply: “You don’t want to kill your audience.”

Whether the omission was wise or not (I think I disagree with Ebert on this), the line would have served beautifully to underscore the premise that Eva has been throughout the sole focus of Kevin’s malevolence, no matter who have been his actual victims, and that in a sense Eva, his obsessed audience, has created him thus because she needed him to be vile.

On Amazon.com: We Need to Talk About Kevin and We Need to Talk About Kevin [Blu-ray]. Shriver’s novel is also available: We Need to Talk About Kevin: A Novel