Mark Reviews Movies

We Need to Talk About Kevin


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Lynne Ramsay

Cast: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell, Rock Duer, Ashley Gerasimovich

MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violence and behavior, some sexuality and language)

Running Time: 1:52

Release Date: 12/9/11 (limited); 1/27/12 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | January 26, 2012

From before he was born, Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton, in a performance that finds the range of the shades of desolation) has been at war with her son. One of the opening moments of We Need to Talk About Kevin, which weaves back and forth between the past and the present, observes her in a state of ecstasy at a large gathering of people, caked in a red viscous substance (She is regularly swathed in or framed by the color red, like the mark of Cain that others believe she has and that she fears she must possess). At one point, her life was filled with promise and adventure.

She even writes a book about her experiences, although that fact only arrives through her seeing a poster announcing a book signing. She can no longer even think of her life and accomplishments on their own terms; everything is intertwined with her son.

She was, we gather, happy. Then she becomes pregnant, sitting uncomfortably with a group of other pregnant women. She resents her son before she even knows what he looks like. During birth, the doctor scolds her to stop fighting the natural trek of her baby through the birth canal. When she decorates the walls of her office with various maps, her son wrecks the figurative representation of her dreams. She was happy, until that damned kid came along.

"Damned" is perhaps the best way to describe her son Kevin (Ezra Miller plays him as a teenager and young adult in a frightfully calm and still performance). He is currently in prison, and in the flashes of teenagers on gurneys and in body bags, police cars, rescue workers, and screaming parents outside of a high school that co-writer/director Lynne Ramsay inserts throughout the tapestry of Eva's memory, it does not take much imagination to determine what Kevin has done. The people in town will never let her forget, going out of their way to vandalize her home and car, sabotage her grocery shopping, and assault her in broad daylight.

From their and Eva's perspective, her son is evil. She has known this from the start when her newborn baby refused to stop crying no matter what she did for him. At one point, she stands at a construction site with baby Kevin in his carriage and just soaks in the pounding of a jackhammer for some relief from the incessant screeching of this creature with which she spends the whole of her day. Her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) has no problems; "You just have to rock him," he explains to her, cradling his son in his arms. Over the years, Franklin only starts to see his wife as having a problem that needs fixing.

Ramsay and Rory Kinnear's screenplay (based on the novel by Lionel Shriver) is written from Eva's unreliable point of view, so there are gaps to her narrative of Kevin's upbringing. It's also, naturally, flavored by her knowledge of her son's terrible act, seen in a speculative montage of his bloodlust and in a preemptive moment of grandiosity—him taking a bow before an empty high school gymnasium, imagining thunderous applause as though he is a conductor to a symphony of chaos.

The central question is not whether or not Kevin has performed evil (more than likely in less perceptible ways than the film's central scene throughout his life); it is what forces have brought him to do so. Is he the result of nature, nurture, or a dreadful combination of both?

Eva, the film's first-person narrator (minus the actually narration), complicates matters. She is too close to events—too spiteful of Kevin from the start—to be completely accurate. She recalls how as a toddler Kevin (Rock Duer) refused to say "mama" or throw a rubber ball (red, of course) back to her. She fears he might be deaf from the constant crying of his infancy (She fails to mention her own attempts to drown out the screaming) or in the early stages of autism, but the doctor insists it is normal. As he grows, the older Kevin (Jasper Newell) refuses to toilet train, leading Eva to do "the smartest thing [she] ever did," according to the teenage Kevin. She throws him into a wall, breaking his arm. The physical force works; it's also the first time Kevin seems to consciously take advantage of his mother's desire to be good to her son despite or because of her feelings of animosity toward him.

There are plenty of events to foreshadow Kevin's ultimate fate, particularly a pair involving his younger sister Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich), whom Eva has solely to have an ally in the face of a son who hates her and a husband who takes the boy's side. Both incidents are left somewhat hazy as to Kevin's participation in them (The more severe of the two, which involves an unattended bottle of drain cleaner, is set up with Eva being the last person we see handling the toxic substance), and it only furthers our suspicions of both Kevin and Eva.

We Need to Talk About Kevin refuses to take the easy route and simply condemn Kevin as evil incarnate (Do not misinterpret; it does not condone him, either) or pin the blame on whatever Eva may have done to help create him. The final scene between the two, which is maybe the only one that could conclusively be argued is witnessed without the filter of memory, turns the tables on their roles as aggressor and victim, and what we thought we knew about them is somehow at once solidified and shattered.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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