WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN
DIRECTED BY Lynne Ramsay
STARS Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly
Of all the nomination flubs made this past January by the Academy of Harvey Weinstein Arts and Sciences — no Michael Fassbender; only two nominated songs; Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close absurdly in the running — the most egregious mistake was arguably the lack of a Best Actress nod for Tilda Swinton. Her performance in the chilling drama We Need to Talk About Kevin was the best given by a female in either category, lead or supporting.
It's a subtle turn in a muted movie, but the low-simmer setting of the project is precisely why it stays with you. Although based on a novel by Lionel Shriver, it seems to be a direct descendant of The Bad Seed, the 1956 thriller with Patty McCormack's Oscar-nominated turn as a murderous moppet (let's not waste time on 1993's similarly themed The Good Son; as a homicidal brat, Macaulay Culkin was about as menacing as an inchworm). Here, the bad seed is the titular boy, son of Eva (Swinton) and Franklin (John C. Reilly, even more miscast here than in Carnage) and older brother to sweet Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich). From the moment he popped out of his mother's womb, Kevin's been an absolute terror. As a toddler, he cried incessantly around Eva but remained cheerful and cherubic around his dad. Surely someone so young couldn't already be so consciously devious?
It gets worse. As a boy of around 7 or 8, he does everything he can to get under his mother's skin, driving her so bonkers that in a fit she breaks his arm. While other kids would shriek incessantly, to the point where Social Services would be called, Kevin merely grimaces before grinning at his guilt-ridden — and compromised — mom. It will be their secret.
It's when Kevin becomes a teenager (played at this point by Ezra Miller) that he becomes especially surly — and dangerous. Franklin still remains a clueless parent while Celia only wants to love and play, meaning that it's still Eva and Eva alone who bears the full weight of familial dysfunction.
None of this is related in chronological order, mind you. Part of the film's power rests in the fragmented manner in which writer-director Lynne Ramsay (co-adapting with Rory Kinnear) presents her story, dropping us into the narrative stream whenever and wherever she sees fit. And because of this structure, she scatters the thematic seeds (bad seeds?) all over the premise, challenging us to decide whether Kevin was born evil, whether he's the victim of a pampered lifestyle (the Scottish Ramsay doesn't appear to find much of interest in American suburbia), whether Eva or Franklin are rotten parents, or, most intriguingly, whether Kevin is merely a mirror image of his mother, a chilly and distant woman who had been reluctant to toss aside her hedonistic lifestyle for the rigidity of marriage and motherhood — in effect poisoning their relationship before her son was even born. I won't reveal whether the movie answers the question or merely checks off "None of the Above," but regardless, We Need to Talk About Kevin is one motion picture that invites post-film conversation.