REVIEW: We Need to Talk About Kevin [2011]

Score: 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 112 minutes | Release Date: December 9th, 2011 (USA)
Studio: Oscilloscope Pictures
Director(s): Lynne Ramsay
Writer(s): Lynne Ramsay & Rory Kinnear / Lionel Shriver (novel)

“He’s a funny little boy, isn’t he? But there’s nothing wrong with him.”

Six words coming too late—We Need to Talk About Kevin. For mother Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), the sociopathic tendencies of her boy were prevalent since conception. But to her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) their son was a happy, polite kid living life and getting into trouble like all boys his age do. Driving a wedge between them—a union bred from spontaneity and a lack of planning—Kevin appears to revel in the destruction he wreaks. Only letting his true self shine when Mommy Dearest is watching, it’s as though he’s had a plan all along. He was born to decimate his mother’s existence, to pay her back for never truly seeing him as more than the reason her life of exotic adventure ended.

The newest directorial effort from critical favorite Lynne Ramsay and based on a novel by Lionel Shriver, Kevin engulfs us with the pain wrought in the aftermath of a horrendous school killing. Ramsay and co-writer/husband Rory Kinnear aren’t interested in talking about the boy who willingly took the lives of his classmates though. This story is Eva’s and her wrestling with the realization and guilt that perhaps she was the reason her son became a monster. Flashing backwards in time, we catch glimpses of a thrilling life on the move as well as the veritable prison domesticity constructed around her. Opening to a glorious overhead shot of writhingly kinetic flesh at a Spanish tomato festival years previous, we see the only authentic smile to ever grace Eva’s face.

Smitten in a whirlwind embrace with Franklin, it is the unplanned pregnancy bonding them that derails the life she knew. Selfish yet willing to try, watching this mother take her screaming son into the middle of a road to drown his wails with a neighboring jack-hammer only helps express her ambivalence to motherhood and the desire to escape. A renowned author of travel books, her new existence of familial chores is alien to her. A need to stay sharp and teach falls on deaf ears as Kevin’s darkly menacing eyes stare straight through her. Trying to play catch or speak the most rudimentary ‘mama’, the only response this toddler gives is a look worse than indifference. This boy is peering into his mother’s soul and upon seeing its frigid lack of warmth wants nothing more than to show her its volatility, whatever the cost.

Shot in gorgeously stunning close-ups alongside statically geometric long shots with Swinton’s beleaguered and wary mother centered in frame, Seamus McGarvey‘s cinematography becomes a character itself. The transitions from tomato pulp in Spain to the façade of a red paint streaked house to the splatters of ink showering a room wallpapered with maps to the blood of a school laid to ruin by tears and shrieks of horror are amazingly smooth and resonate. Paired with a perfectly odd soundtrack of old pop songs from the 50s and 60s like Lonnie Donegan‘s “Ham N Eggs”, Buddy Holly‘s “Everyday”, and “In My Room” by The Beach Boys, the aesthetic is like no other film I’ve seen this year. An amalgam of old and new mirroring the sifting through past and present, Jonny Greenwood’s score wraps it all together to let the experience be as auditory as it is visceral. The playfully upbeat tunes only make the nightmarish sights worse.

A methodically clinical performance from Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller at differing ages, Kevin is a special breed of monster. His insolence is calculated; his smirks of pleasure watching his mother unravel full of pure satisfaction. We see his cruel deeds go unpunished by a father oblivious to the indiscretions, but the film never allows such clichéd deflection devolve into cheap horror tropes of demonically conniving children. No, Kevin is a pitch-perfect depiction of true evil—misguided, emotionless, incapable of keeping his sociopathic tendencies in check. We see his younger sister Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich) dancing around their large house with an eye-patch and assume Kevin is to blame. And even when we witness the event—despite the answer still remaining shrouded in mystery—we can’t help but side with Eva.

Like mother like son, there is an inherent coldness from each. Their battle is fought and won by the more mischievous boy every time. He thaws to watch her guard dissolve and then snaps back into robotically angry responses to see the knife cut deeper with each subsequent wound. It’s no coincidence Ramsay decides to show microscopically enlarged footage of breast cancer cells separating when other films would show sperm and eggs uniting to create a fetus. Kevin is a cancerous tumor who incubated within a mother that didn’t want him. He is a parasite sucking the life of his maternal nurturer in order to walk the earth and grow more malignant as years pass. Whatever fervor for life she once possessed has turned into a warped sense of control on his behalf. He becomes her master, manipulating her life even after his magnum opus of carnage is complete.

Both boys are phenomenal in portraying a life without the capacity to love, but Miller shines in his snide smile and casually cool expressions forever burning holes into Eva’s soul. Swinton takes it all with a pained visage worn thin from years of abuse no one will corroborate happened. Forever trapped in a vicious cycle of psychological torment, it’s the present vignettes living in a town labeling her the mother of a monster—a bitch for bringing him into this world—that are hard to forget. Unprovoked slaps to the face, cruelty from coworkers like Alex Manette‘s Colin attempting to woo before making true intentions transparent, or the cacophony of terror on Halloween as she imagines everyone lumbering towards her house to find their revenge in blood all keep her from forgiving herself to finally let go of the son she never wanted.

There is so much more besides the malicious stares from neighbors or quick bursts of unchecked violence resigning her to admitting guilt. An exchange with a surviving victim of the rampage, Soweto (Kenneth Franklin), reveals humanity no longer in fashion. Not until the finale uncovers how depressingly vile Kevin’s actions were do we fully understand the ramifications. Always picking a fight to find signs of life from his mother, he finally receives a long-awaited punishment and uses it as blackmail to tighten his stranglehold. The film touches upon societal horrors and the weakness of humanity to let evil reign because Kevin is still flesh and blood no matter how bad or manipulative. Unencumbered by demonic fantasy, this is a story about real people and the unanswerable questions created by their actions. It’s hard to believe in a compassionate world when our fellow man constantly disappoints by joining the lynch mob.

[1] Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly in WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.
[2] Ezra Miller and Tilda Swinton in WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.
[3] Tilda Swinton in WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

One Thought to “REVIEW: We Need to Talk About Kevin [2011]”

  1. fuzzbear mark

    Although I knew the subject-matter, and even knew too many plot points (read reviews/comments online), I found the film deeply disturbing. Everyone was pitch-perfect and this is a true horror film for our time. Tilda never cease to amaze. Kudos to all involved.

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