| There’s no denying “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a difficult film — it’s the story of a mother’s worst nightmare and her seemingly evil son, told with structural complexity and devastating power. Getting it made was no easy task, and neither is watching it. But challenging cinema of this class is rare, and the deep impact it leaves on viewers lasts for weeks.
Right from the start, “Kevin” clearly proves that it’s no mere arthouse drama subtly tackling provocative subject matter. Unexpectedly, it opens with a sea of red bodies and dissonant shouting, showing travel writer Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) in euphoria as that crowd lifts her over their heads at the annual tomato festival in Buñol, Spain.
The next scene quickly establishes that red will be the most effective and chilling color throughout the movie, as we see Eva about 20 years later, defeated and living alone, walking outside to find red paint maliciously splattered all over her small white house and car windshield.
Despised by virtually the entire community for a horrible crime her son Kevin committed at his high school, Eva now only has a menial secretary job and noncommunicative prison visits with Kevin to fill her empty existence. As we slowly see her trying to rebuild her life, interspersed flashbacks make up the majority of the film and reveal how Kevin had always made Eva’s life torture, from his days as an endlessly crying baby to unraveling her psyche as a sadistic, calculating teenager. How much Eva’s cold parenting played a part in this, however, and if she could have changed his fate, is left up to the viewer.
Admittedly, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is too dark and disturbing for some people. It packs a huge, grimly affecting punch, and as a teenager, Kevin becomes a hellishly twisted individual. A number of the elderly members in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences even stated they wouldn’t watch it because it’s too difficult a movie for them. As a result, “Kevin” was snubbed of the Oscar attention it deserved, most notably for Swinton.
In the present day sequences, Swinton portrays Eva with the fragility of a glass doll about to break, exemplified by her gaunt appearance and fear of all others, as if they could tear her apart at any time. But in the flashbacks, though harsh and stronger at first, over time her will is broken down by Kevin, till utter destruction, which feels so authentic that viewers’ hearts drop in pain. In a career of many unique, multi-layered performances, this is without a doubt her best.
In the case of Kevin, as a toddler (Rock Duer), child (Jasper Newell) and teenager (Ezra Miller), all three young actors are terrific, and not only look like each other, but also like Swinton. The 18-year-old Miller depicts Kevin’s merciless cruelty with unnerving precision, but imbues him with a slightly laid back attitude that makes this monster feel like a real person and not just a character – and thus, all the more frightening. Considering Miller delivers such an eerily effective performance at this age, expect great things from him in the future.
But while watching it, what really stands out about “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is director Lynne Ramsay’s visual storytelling. In adapting the novel (which is written in the form of letters from Eva to her estranged husband), hers and Rory Kinnear’s screenplay cuts much of the dialogue and evokes the same mood, prominently using an impeccable aesthetic.
It’s the ways she brings out specific colors (she uses red to induce great tension), the stunning camerawork and unsettling closeups. Even the incredibly ominous sound design and the haunting soundtrack choices (Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood composes the original score): it all combines into one astonishing package. Of special note is the masterful editing — in particular the first half hour, which jumps all over the timeline and immerses viewers head-on in Eva’s world.
While “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is technically a drama, Ramsay conducts the tale with a constant edge of suspense. Kevin gets so deep under viewers’ skin that this feels more like a psychological thriller, with likely the most disconcerting dash of horror since “Black Swan.” Thank God there’s an occasional undercurrent of dark humor to ease the bleakness, from John C. Reilly’s lighter performance as Eva’s husband to some of Kevin’s perverse views of the world.
But at the end of the day, to call Ramsay’s film anything less than a groundbreaking work of art would be a disservice. And to avoid it because it’s uncomfortable, difficult or too heavy would be a disservice to yourself. Ramsay strikes to the core with emotional force, and in doing so offers a truly unforgettable, one-of-a-kind experience.