There are few human connections as assured and indelible as the bond between a mother and her child. At least, that’s what we’re led to believe. But what happens when that connection simply isn’t there? What happens when these two beings physically part ways after existing as one for nine months only to see their emotional tethering end as well?
We Need to Talk About Kevin explores that theme to a tragic and painful conclusion, but it does so with a beautiful emptiness. Style trumps content in an effort to examine the origin of a monstrous act, but while the film seems content letting everyone blame the mother (including the mother herself) for what eventually happens it never passes up an opportunity to show the child’s inherently evil nature. Neither of them change or grow from beginning to end, but the lack of a real narrative or character arc sure does look pretty.
Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) lives alone in a small house that constantly falls victim to vandals, and a walk down the street or to the supermarket puts her at risk for a drive-by slapping or insult just as often as not. She’s alone and branded by her fellow citizens as beneath contempt, and her “crime” is revealed through flashbacks that interrupt a sad life spent avoiding conflict and cleaning paint from her house and car.
We learn that pregnancy and childbirth turned her from a free spirit into a depressed and stifled woman. Her emotional disinterest in her son and her inability to act motherly are paired with a child who seemingly exits the womb already marked by Satan. Seriously, the scenes of him as a toddler could easily find a home in any horror film about evil children. He’s a cartoonish super-villain by the age of six and becomes the devil incarnate as a teenager (Ezra Miller). Of course her husband (John C. Reilly) is oblivious to it all as are Kevin’s teachers and counselors.
That progression of terror eventually leads to an incident at school that alters everyone’s lives forever, and through it all we’re led to believe Eva’s callousness and failure as a mother are the true culprit. After all she did slap his hand once.
Eva and Kevin are the dual cores of the film even beyond their obvious familial connection, and we’re reminded of it constantly. We see him picking fingernails from his tongue and lining them up on a table and later see her doing the same with egg shells. The color red is used as a visual reminder of the bloodshed to come, and it’s a color shared by the two in their jelly sandwiches, paint play, clothing and more. The message seems to be that he is his mother’s son, but his arrival on scene as a diminutive and manipulative little bastard all but negates the nurture side of the ‘nature vs nurture’ argument. But even with the devil spawn’s clear complicity the film continues to drive home Eva’s guilt through the contempt of past acquaintances, the perceived disdain of strangers, and Eva’s own refusal to argue the point. She’s as much a victim as anyone else in town yet no one seems to see it that way. Her passivity blankets the film just as Kevin’s evilness does with neither character breaking beyond those one dimensional restraints for more than a second or two.
Director/co-writer Lynne Ramsay adapted her film from the novel by Lionel Shriver, and while the book presumably offers a more textured and detailed look at the characters the film forgoes such things in favor of its style. There’s no doubt Ramsay has made her most attractive film here with stirring musical choices and well framed and structured shots, and she’s even managed one of the year’s more haunting shots with a slow zoom towards the billowing curtains at an open porch door. But for all her visual acumen Ramsay seems to shirk her duty to pair a compelling story and character to an idea and visuals. The film works better as a dream than as a narrative.
That arty, dreamlike style makes it difficult to judge performances especially when the characters are so one note across the board. Swinton has never been the warmest of actors and that trend continues here. She spends much of the film seemingly in shock and frightened of the world around her, and the brief glimpses into her pre-motherhood life are the only glimmers of emotion we get. Miller does a fine job of bringing out his internal Beelzebub with every glance and move of the eyes, and while Reilly’s dramatic turn probably comes off the best that’s faint praise as the role is so minor.
The film has additional problems including the disjointed editing that jumps back and forth with abandon. Ramsay is sure to link the transitions visually with scenes melding into each other through similar images and actions, but they diminish any chance at real emotional effect by not allowing enough time for the viewer to connect with what’s playing out onscreen. There’s also the climactic incident itself that is only glimpsed peripherally but still manages to come across as absolutely ludicrous in its execution.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is, in the end, a beautiful and intriguing misfire that mistakes style and color for depth and character. The topic of a mother’s severe disconnect with her child is a potentially fascinating one that should lend itself to an intense and thought provoking character study, but Ramsay’s film cheats its way through with little more than pretty pictures and vague intentions. It’s made clear that Eva is guilty of being a terrible mother, but Kevin is equally guilty of being a comically evil son, so who’s really to blame? The film doesn’t seem too sure of the answer, but it also doesn’t seem too concerned. And if the movie doesn’t care why should we?
The Upside: One or two effective scenes towards the end; darkly comic at times
The Downside: Eva never amounts to more than a passive waste; Kevin is played as a comic book super-villain from the age of two; missing some important details; fairly ridiculous school attack; time shift editing loses some emotional power instead of enhancing it