A stark, hallucinatory parental nightmare the likes of which we haven’t seen since Eraserhead , Scottish director Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is an outrageous provocation. Brutal, hilarious and almost unbearably sad, you’re either going to love it or despise it. Either way, here’s a movie worth arguing over.
Tilda Swinton, that translucent art-house icon with the sharp angles and Ziggy Stardust aura stars as Eva, first glimpsed writhing in a psychedelic crimson rapture at the Spanish Tomatina festival, juxtaposed with harsh cuts to a drab suburban backwater many years later, where her house is splashed by vandals with blood-red paint. Now alone and routinely abused by the locals, Eva can’t even go to the supermarket. Something very bad has obviously happened, but it’s going to take us a little while to find out exactly what.
Cross-cut throughout as an expressionist montage, constantly drifting between the awful present and unreliable memories, We Need to Talk About Kevin takes its time teasing out the details. Once upon a time, Eva was a free-spirited bohemian writer traveling the world. But then a tryst with schlubby John C. Reilly turned into an accidental pregnancy. Not too long after, their cosmopolitan apartment in New York City gave way to an anonymous cookie-cutter suburban development, and all of Eva’s wandering dreams were consigned to a shrine of abandoned world maps on her office wall.
This isn’t the way we’re supposed to talk about motherhood in the movies, and I think the reason this picture rubs so many people the wrong way has a lot to do with Swinton’s fearless depiction of Eva’s guilt-ridden selfishness. This is a life a lot of people would kill for, but it’s not one she ever wanted.
Her son, Kevin, is a manifestation of those conflicted emotions. He’s also a raging psychopath. Played at various ages by Rock Duer, Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller, the kid looks like a funhouse mirror of Swinton’s distinctive features. Even as a toddler he has an alarming, unblinking stare. Heck, even as a baby he cries so loud and for so long Mommy parks his stroller next to a jackhammer—just to try and drown out the screaming for a couple minutes of solace.
Kevin is constantly out-witting and one-upping his mother in a collection of sickly comic vignettes that Ramsay somehow manages to play for queasy laughs while still giving full consideration to Eva’s overwhelming sadness and exasperation. The simple act of changing his diaper turns into psychological warfare; just when she’s finally finished cleaning him up, he shits himself again with a smirk.
A lot of folks rather strenuously object to scenes like that, or the one in which the kid rudely interrupts his mother’s lesson about the birds and the bees with a much blunter synopsis. Kevin is such a one-note, omniscient bad seed it’s easy to mistake certain passages of this picture for an art-house gloss on The Omen . But it’s also important to remember that we’re watching Eva’s flashbacks, to scenes in which only she and the child were present. She’s post-traumatic as all get out, and such memories should hardly be interpreted as how things really occurred. I see them as nightmare projections, based on her monstrous regret, not to mention everything that happened afterward.
Ramsay’s slippery, time-shifting structure lets us know far sooner than later that Kevin was in fact a very naughty boy, heading into his high school one morning with some bike locks and a bow and arrow. The extent of the massacre dribbles out elliptically, lingering mostly on the aftermath, years later. A pariah stranded in a town where she never wanted to live, Eva keeps fanatically scrubbing those splashes of paint from her house and her car, trying to wash all this red stuff off her hands.
Lynne Ramsay hasn’t directed a movie since 2002’s Morvern Callar , and that’s certainly our loss. She composes images in fragmented waves, as stray bits of scenes wash over us and accumulate over time. Seamus McGarvey’s gorgeous cinematography amplifies the sterility of the suburban landscape, punctuated by those blindingly bright reds as harbingers of doom, everywhere from tomato soup cans to clock radios, to jelly sandwiches. This is bravura filmmaking.
Considering the annoying way our culture currently fetishizes parenthood, with celebrity baby-bumps treated as the second coming in the mass media, Ramsay’s work feels genuinely transgressive. We’re not supposed to talk about a lot of the ugly feelings Kevin stirs up, but maybe we need to.
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly and Ezra Miller