Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin (TIFF 2011)
PLOT: A woman (Tilda Swinton) deals with the aftermath of a high school massacre committed by her son, Kevin (Ezra Miller). She reflects on his formative years, throughout which she was convinced that there was something seriously wrong with her son- to this disbelief of her kindly, if naive husband (John C. Reilly).
REVIEW: There probably wasn't anything else playing at TIFF that challenged audiences as much as WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN. High school massacres are never anyone's favorite subject, and for every ELEPHANT, there are a dozen films like AMERICAN GUN, or BEAUTIFUL BOY- which, though well-acted, haven't the guts to take a really hard look at this all too-prevalent phenomena.
Director Lynne Ramsay, adapting the novel by Lionel Shriver, succeeds where many of these films failed by suggesting, controversially, that in some cases, neither the parents, nor society is to blame- when it's made clear as day that Kevin is simply evil. This is a disturbing notion, due to the fact that as a society, we're always looking for someone to blame. After Columbine, the scapegoat was movies, and failing that, we blame the parents. Or the teachers. Or the other students. KEVIN doesn't do any of that.
His mom, as played by Tilda Swinton, suspects from a very young age that something is seriously wrong with her son- but what is she to do? She's still his mother, and throughout the film she walks a fine line, trying to find a way to draw her son close and hopefully learn what makes him tick before it's too late. Swinton plays her in an aggressively realistic manner- contrasting the cultured, sophisticated younger self, against the utterly lifeless post-massacre version of the character, where she's taunted and tortured every day by her neighbors, who hold her responsible for her child's actions.
It's a hell of a role for Swinton, and Ramsay's adaptation of the novel seems tailor made to her strengths. Swinton gives us a lot of insight into the character's mounting horror as she realizes exactly the kind of monster she's given birth to.
This contrasts with her naive husband, played by John C. Reilly (nice to see him back in a drama), who's unable to accept that his son is anything less than perfect. His denial goes so far that even when his second child loses an eye thanks to Kevin, he writes it off as an accident. As Kevin, Ezra Miller (who impressed me with the recent Sundance hit, ANOTHER HAPPY DAY) is chilling, and almost too convincing as the repulsive Kevin.
The film unfolds in a mostly non-linear fashion. The present-day, post-massacre sequences are consecutive, but the flashbacks are mostly not. Still, it's relatively easy to follow as long as close attention is played, and Ramsay's technique behind the camera is dazzling.
Especially noteworthy is her use of color, along with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, with particularly bold use of red. The music is also very interesting, with it being a mix of older tracks- mostly rockabilly and Phil Spector style stuff (with the exception of an inspired use of the Wham song, Last Christmas), and Jonny Greenwood's (of Radiohead) avant-garde score.
Considering the subject matter, it goes without saying that WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is not an easy watch. It's probably more something to be endured rather than enjoyed. However, it's certainly something deserving of attention- although once the credits roll most audiences will be breathing a sigh of relief, happy that it's over. Then again, I suspect that's been Ramsay's intention all along.