Review: Tilda Swinton dazzles in devastating ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’

05.12.11 6 years ago 7 Comments

When I think of my children… and we’re not even talking about times when I’m with them or when we’re doing things together… but just when I think of them, I am gripped by such a powerful emotion that calling it “love” seems to do it injustice. 

When I was in the delivery room and the doctors handed me my first son for the first time, I wept at the flood of feelings that hit me.  Until that moment, I did not know the meaning of the term “unconditional love,” and I would argue that no love between adults is ever truly unconditional.  We meet someone, we learn about them, and we develop these relationships through time and experience and attraction.  But with your own children, there is something innate that kicks in immediately, a desire to protect and nurture and inspire. 

Having kids has been the single greatest thing for me as a person because it taught me how to truly, completely put someone else before me.  I would do anything for my children.  My own happiness is secondary to theirs.  I can’t imagine my life with them on any other terms.  Like I said… I didn’t choose this.  It just happened the moment they were born.

And what if it didn’t?

Lynne Ramsay is a major talent whose earlier films “Ratcatcher” and “Morvern Callar” both proved a mastery of tone and subtle, smart emotional tightrope-walking.  It’s been eight years since her last film, though, and for a fan of her work, that’s been a difficult wait.  Thankfully, her adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need To Talk About Kevin is exactly the right piece of material to re-introduce her to filmgoers, and I would imagine that after this film, there will not be another eight year gap between movies for her.  This is an extraordinary movie, emotionally brutal, visually masterful, and performed without a single false note by a gifted cast, all of it pulled together by Ramsay with what looks like ease.

There’s nothing easy about this film, though.  The narrative plays out in fractured chronology, leaving us with questions that get more and more ominous as the film wears on.  There are some general impressions given up front about what we’re waiting for, but until you’ve gone through the entire journey, you are not prepared for just how harrowing an experience it’s going to be.  When you’re making a film that absolutely levels an audience, you need to have actors who are at the top of their craft, and you can’t ask for better than Tilda Swinton, who stars here as Eva, a woman who has traveled the world and written about it to great acclaim.  She and Franklin (John C. Reilly) meet, fall in love, and in one night of unguarded passion, decide to have a child together.  Eva’s someone who has embraced experience in all its unpredictable nature, but whatever she expects from parenthood, she is not ready for the reality of it.

Go back and read that first paragraph of mine.  You’d think, based on that, that everything with my kids has been rainbows and sunshine.  Any parent will tell you, though, that there are moments of despair, especially in the early days.  When your child cries for six straight hours or when they won’t eat or when your wife can’t nurse properly, it feels like the end of the world.  You’re operating on no sleep, your relationship with your spouse has changed completely, and you are constantly on edge about this helpless little life form you are completely responsible for.  Having a child is terrifying, and anyone who says otherwise has probably blocked all those memories with alcohol.  Wisely.

From the very beginning, Eva’s relationship with her child Kevin is a difficult one.  Over the course of the film, Kevin is played by four different people.  There’s the infant, who was evidently cast for his ability to scream nonstop, and then we quickly move on to the toddler, played by Rocky Duer.  Right away, the work that Ramsay gets out of these young actors is just exceptional.  There are so many developmental steps that you look for as a parent to make sure your child is healthy and maturing, and when things start to go wrong, it can trigger a nearly existential panic.  The toddler Kevin is silent, sullen, almost as if he’s testing Eva.  Whenever Franklin’s around, he’s a different person.  I know that in my house, my wife often finds herself frustrated by our youngest son Allen, only to see him completely change when I ask him to do the same thing.  That can feel intentional, almost like an affront, but it’s normal for there to be some differences between how kids deal with each parent.  What’s not normal is the open hostility that sets in by the time the film jumps to Kevin from the ages of 6 to 8, when he’s played by Jasper Newell.  Again… this is not a standard kid performance.  Ramsay turns him into a figure of menace so palpable that he practically radiates it.  As he gets smarter, his battle of wills with his mother becomes more and more pronounced, and it begins to manifest in ways that suggest he’s not just a difficult child, but a dangerous one.

How would you deal with that? If you genuinely felt that your child was a sociopath, missing some vital pieces, would you be able to do something about it?  What?  And what if your spouse simply didn’t believe you?  And what if something terrible finally happened, and you had to live with that inaction on your part, knowing that you had seen that potential?

These are terribly difficult questions, and the film never shies away from any of the issues it raises.  By the time Ezra Miller takes over as the teenage Kevin, he and Eva are locked in this awful feedback loop of passive aggressive behavior that would be toxic even if it never accelerated.  Miller is a tremendous young actor, and he stands toe-to-toe with Swinton in every moment in the film, willing and able to give as good as he gets.  And as we see Eva trying to rebuild her life in the aftermath of whatever it is that Kevin eventually does, every single casual gesture by Miller becomes nearly apocalyptic.  You wait for the big moment to come, but gradually it’s apparent that it is the accumulation of these small moments that is the real apocalypse.  Kevin’s eventual moment of infamy is just the punctuation mark on the sentence that the two of them have been writing for their entire life together.

Everything about the film works for me.  It is one of those films where I know I’ll be writing about it again as the year wears on, and I look forward to sitting down with Ramsay and the cast to talk about what they’ve accomplished.  Every collaborator on the film should be proud of what they’ve done, whether it’s the spare and haunting ambient score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood or the vivid, impressionistic photography by Seamus McGarvey or the pitch perfect production design by Judy Becker.  It is a case where every detail enhances the emotional impact, every scene perfectly building towards the almost wrenching release of the finale, and every performance underlining the feeling of a world turned hostile in which Eva finds herself alone, adrift, not sure who to blame, unable to fix the damage done.

I am sure I will see a number of very good movies at Cannes this year, but I find it hard to believe that any of them will haunt me with quite the feverish intensity as “We Need To Talk About Kevin.”  The sound of sprinklers will never be the same for me again, and I will never take my relationship with my kids for granted.  This didn’t just work for me as a film… it feels like an experience only barely survived.

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