Directed by: Lynne Ramsay.
Written by: Lynne Ramsay & Rory Kinnear based on the novel by Lionel Shriver.
Starring: Tilda Swinton (Eva Khatchadourian), John C. Reilly (Franklin), Ezra Miller (Kevin, Teenager), Jasper Newell (Kevin, 6-8 Years), Rock Duer (Kevin, Toddler), Ashley Gerasimovich (Celia).
I have read Lionel Shriver’s brilliant novel We Need to Talk About Kevin twice now. Both times, I loved it, but I was amazed by how different my reaction was to the novel each time. Perhaps it shouldn’t be too big a surprise, since the first time I read the novel was about five years ago, and the second time was in preparation for the movie adaptation, and in between, I had my first child. I felt more sympathy for Kevin the second time through the novel. What is brilliant about the novel is that it is told entirely from Eva’s point of view – so that we can never be sure if what we are reading is the truth, or her perceptions. Was Kevin an evil little shit right from the beginning, destined to one day walk into the high school gym and massacre his fellow students, or was Kevin warped by the fact that he has a mother, who from the moment he is born, hates him? It is the central question that the novel never answers, because there is no definitive answer. What is amazing about Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of the novel is that it keeps that central question intact. I recently complained about the movie version of One Day, saying that the filmmakers never found a way to make what worked in the book work in a movie – they failed to turn the literary into the cinematic. That is not a problem Ramsay’s film has. It is a brilliant adaptation of a brilliant book, but it is also clearly a cinematic achievement. This is one of the best directed films of the year.
The movie flashes back and forth in time, as we see Eva (Tilda Swinton) trying to raise Kevin (played at various stages by Rock Duer, Jasper Newell and most memorably by Ezra Miller), alongside her sweet, well-meaning but clueless husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) and then scenes after Kevin has perpetrated his high school massacre, with Eva, alone, trying to deal with her guilt, and visiting Kevin on a weekly basis.
Some critics have complained that the movie presents Kevin not unlike the movie The Omen presents its demon child Damien. But this misses the point entirely. First of all, the movie is clearly told from Eva’s point of view, meaning that we see Kevin as she sees him – as the child who came along and ruined her life. Before Kevin, she had a job where she travelled around the world, which essentially stopped when Kevin was born so she could stay at home with Kevin and raise him (despite the fact that they both have high paying jobs, and Franklin is the mother nurturing of the two, it is never even brought up that he should stay at home). Eva sees everything Kevin does as a calculated plot to annoy her – even though much of what he does could be construed as just being a kid. Ramsay also underlines the fact that Eva and Kevin are remarkably similar, even though they hate each other. The casting of Ezra Miller is particularly ingenious, as he has the same angular face and androgynous features as Swinton does. As well, she emphasizes how both hold themselves outside – and above – their peers, seeing themselves as better. In one particularly chilling exchange, Eva goes on about fat people, and how they’re fat because they eat all the time to which Kevin responds “You know, you can be kind of harsh”, Eva responds “You’re one to talk” to which Kevin says “Yeah. I wonder where I got it from.” Eva hates Kevin, and Kevin hates Eva because in each other they see themselves – and don’t like what they see. This is also why Eva is so easily able to love her second child – a daughter, because she is so different.
Swinton’s performance as Eva is quite simply remarkable. She has long established herself as an actress who has no fear, and will take on the riskiest projects. Her Oscar win for Michael Clayton is a great performance, but one of her safer choices. Think back to her remarkable work as an unsympathetic drunk in Julia or how she learned to speak Italian with a Russian accent in I Am Love for recent examples. But her work in We Need to Talk About Kevin is on a different level from even those great performances. She isn’t afraid to make Eva completely unsympathetic – she is, after all, a mother who hates her own child. It’s even better considering the way Ramsay shoots the movie – with little dialogue in long stretches, establishing mood with its haunting score (by Johnny Greenwood) and her visuals. Swinton does so much in her silences here. It is one of the very best performances of the year. It should also be mentioned that newcomer Ezra Miller is great as well as the teenage Kevin – with his cold, dead eyes and calculating stare and his calm chilling delivery.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of the best films of the year – and one of the most difficult. This is a dark, depressing film that looks at a side of parenthood rarely seen in the movies. It was a brave film for Swinton and Ramsay to make – and the fact that they pulled it off so brilliantly is a testament to their skill.