For all prospective parents and parents still raising children in their formative years, Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin might be the single most unsettling film you see this year.
As a soon-to-be father, I do hope that when my son arrives he’s not anything like this film’s Kevin, a terror tot who graduates slowly to terror tyke and then terror teen in front of the eyes of his distant yet horrified mother. That may be the film’s only real point; not whether it’s Kevin’s nature or his mother Eva’s nurture that breeds a monster, but that the raising of a child holds a certain interior panic for all who care about how their kids will turn out. Will we ruin them in the womb with our habits or outside of the womb with our flawed care? Could they grow to abnormality with no input either way from us, rendering both our nurture and our nature futile? It may not accomplish much more, but as a crafty, creepy spine-tingler about a parent’s worst nightmare Kevin is a cold-blooded winner.
With its art-house accoutrements, high-class casting, and sparse, moody score Kevin quietly masks its true nature; its aberrant heart beats with the rhythms of an old-school Universal monster movie. Here Van Helsing isn’t a gruff and musty old-world vampire hunter but a once fiercely independent suburban mother who has given birth to and reared Dracula herself, her instincts of his wickedness drowned out by a call to maternity that she never quite grasps and seemingly has little use for. Ramsay has mercifully taken Lionel Shriver’s smug and foreboding novel and removed its awkward literary devices and tiresome tone; in the book Eva is authoring the tale in letters to her husband as an apology of sorts that conjures a feeling somewhere between the moral hand-wringing of a 20/20 special and the alarmist schlock of a Lifetime movie.
Co-scripting with Rory Kinnear (not the playwright), Ramsay streamlines the narrative, jettisoning much of Kevin’s school life and thus removing most of the social early warnings of his threat, leaving his wrongness and darkness to be viewed at home, purposefully obscured from his father and often done in a way that suggests provocation of his mother. The story is whittled down to revolve around a single event that the book clumsily raced towards and foreshadowed but shortchanged in its final chapters; a high-school tragedy seemingly plucked from real-world headlines that has Eva’s son at its tragic center. The movie, fastidiously crafted with a fussy kind of structuralism by Ramsay, puts both mother and son—monster and nemesis—at the center of the film, suggesting their symmetry in edits that show both rising up out of the same pool of water in an arcane baptism, their faces briefly converged as one.
When we first meet Eva Khatchadourian she is literally lost in a sea of visceral red—caught halfway between recollections of her free-spirited past and the unrelenting ghosts of her present—and when she returns the waking world, this color-scheme is reflected in the tomatoes and paint flung angrily against her door. We are standing in the aftermath of Kevin’s grand guignol moment of brutality, vaguely aware of it but mostly presented with its effect on Eva. The film then carefully pilots through her life with Kevin; the agonizing birth, the early days where his incessant cries would cause her to park the carriage in front of running construction equipment for relief, and the later years where it became unclear to even herself whether his oddness was perpetuated by her coldness and distance or they a legitimate reaction to his growing lack of empathy. We meet Franklin (John C Reilly), her husband, and her daughter, (Ashley Gerasimovich), Kevin’s younger sister and their absence in the present day adds to our unease.
Like Dracula, Frankenstein or The Wolfman before it, Kevin turns based on the performance of its monster and the individual who opposes it. Tilda Swinton gives an absolutely terrific turn as Eva, although she’s nothing so easy as a protagonist. Eva is fractured and destroyed, and even her self-blame is just another coping mechanism used to get through each day. Swinton is defiantly sedate in these aftermath sequences, dealing with an ongoing version of the villagers and their pitchforks in the form an angry community who shun her for her son’s sake. Her best work happens in the flashbacks as a reluctant and steely mother who must force herself to care for this little alien she finds in her home, sometimes with failed results.
When Eva smashes young Kevin into a wall, breaking his arm, it is Swinton who adds a sympathetic bewilderment to her behavior. All of the pathos and nuance that exist in Kevin are channeled through Swinton, while most of the dread come through the unflinching and dramatically chilling performance of Ezra Miller (City Island) as the titular problem child. While the other young actors who play Kevin do a fine job of suggesting his nerve-rattling otherness, it is Miller that gives him a humanity that makes him more terrifying. There’s a plausible and fearsome vacuum in Miller’s performance that is undeniably scary without going over-the-top or reaching for obvious gestures of moral delinquency. He also captures the vain and fragile banality of Kevin’s evil, one that pushes for recognition but doesn’t know how to react when eventually confronted with the reality of Eva’s long hidden maternal affection.
Ramsay’s structure serves these performances well, allowing the context of each situation to stand on its own, all of them converging to paint a portrait of tragedy. Where the film falters ironically is in its own DNA, which cannot quite accommodate such a sensationally tragic subject with so little substance. The real questions of Eva’s culpability as mother or simply as stander-by who did nothing are never fully addressed. Part of this is because we know Kevin is evil all the way through, and that at some level, Eva is justified in all of her doubts. This is where Ramsay comes in. She doesn’t elevate the film to classic status, but renders it one of the most compelling cinematic essays about a homicidal child that I’ve seen and she’s probably given us best version of this story that it was possible to make.