Here's the link to the published version of my review in my column at The Richmond Examiner:
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a bleak, depressing, and haunting portrait of a woman who tries to come to terms with the fact that her son is a monster. It slowly unravels its tale through flashbacks that tell us what happened to make this so. There is, of course, no easy explanation, but rather a series of events that point to a few possibilities of how things got to be the way they are. What unfolds is not an easy story to watch, but it is also one of the best films of the year.
Beginning in the present day, we meet Eva (Tilda Swinton), who leads a dreary life, seemingly detached from all outside contact. Her small house has been splattered with red paint, but for what reason we’re unsure. Whenever she does go out, she gets the most peculiar of stares and goes out of her way to avoid particular people. Another woman even gives her a slap on the cheek when she encounters her. Every so often, she visits her teenage son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), in prison, but not much is said. The answers to the mysteries all lie in the past.
Flashbacks inform us that Eva was once happy, living with her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) and awaiting the arrival of her first born. Once Kevin arrives, things begin to get more difficult as he is a rather hard child to deal with. Right away, he seems not to want to listen to his mother or even talk to her. This evolves into more troublesome behavior such as ruining Eva’s bedroom decorations and being constantly rude. When Kevin grows older, this behavior eventually culminates in tragedy as the pieces of the puzzle slowly fall into place.
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a fascinating character study of a broken woman trying to get on with her life after terrible tragedy as well as her dealing with her son as he grows up. It’s hard to put a finger on just one thing that went wrong in his childhood that made him act the way he did. Eva tries to be a good mother from the very start, but begins to get fed up with Kevin’s behavior early on, even going so far as to tell baby Kevin that she was happy before he came along.
Even with his early behavioral issues, there didn’t seem to be much disciplining going on. In fact, there didn’t seem to be any going on at all. This only makes it seem to Kevin like this behavior is acceptable. To top this off, his father is in complete denial about Kevin’s problems, not wanting to accept that he is not a good kid, even after several events that prove otherwise. He even goes so far as to get his troubled teen a real bow and arrows after a childhood fascination with Robin Hood and archery. This, as you probably could have guessed, was not a smart thing to do.
There is also the way Kevin behaves around his parents to consider. Around his father, Kevin is usually well-behaved, yet around his mother, he always seems to have a snide remark to make. A dinner scene between Kevin and Eva is particularly telling of this as he sarcastically predicts the everyday topics his mother is going to want to talk about like school, girls, and drugs.
One incident begins to explain how he acts towards his mother. Early on, when she gets slightly angry at his deliberately bad behavior, she is a little rough with him, causing him to break his arm, leaving him with a small scar. He’s young at the time, but even then, he still gets it into his head that this could be used for blackmailing Eva into doing what he wants.
All of these things are possible explanations for the way Kevin turned out, but then again, he could have been naturally born this way with his parents only serving to compound his behavior through theirs and their lack of discipline. The film doesn’t provide any easy answers for this, but we do know that his childhood certainly didn’t help alleviate any of his problems.
It becomes ironic that in a movie called “We Need to Talk About Kevin” no one actually does just that. Kevin is obviously a very troubled kid, but with a father that’s in such bad denial and a mother that doesn’t seem intent on punishing anything he does, nothing is ever done. You would think that, at the very least, Eva would get the boy some psychiatric counseling or consider military school to make up for their lack of discipline, but these things never happen either, adding complacency to their list of problems. By the time the film gets around to showing us the tragedy that made Eva’s life the way it currently is, we are not surprised in the least after witnessing all that came before.
Eva is such a fascinating character to watch as everything unfolds. This could not have been an easy role, but Tilda Swinton pulls it off brilliantly. Somehow she is able to portray all of the frustration, anger, fear, and more to deliver an incredibly captivating performance. In the present day scenes, she doesn’t speak very much, but her face is an open book that tells us all we need to know about how she is feeling, even when we don’t know what it is she’s gone through yet. In the past, we see her slowly sink into her complacent ways while trying to make some kind of connection with Kevin, but not making any headway. All of this comes together to form a character that you won’t want to look away from.
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” been winning much acclaim as it makes its way around the festival circuit. Especially for Swinton’s performance, and though it’s only in a limited release, it is well worth going out of your way to find it. It may not be a crowd-pleaser, but it’s not every day we get an emotional powerhouse of a film done this well. 3.5/4 stars.