Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

We Need to Talk About Kevin


Lynne Ramsay
Lynn Ramsay, Rory Kinnear (Novel: Lionel Shriver)
112 min.
Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell, Rock Duer, Ashley Gerasimovich, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Alex Manette, Kenneth Franklin
MPAA Rating
R for disturbing violence and behavior, some sexuality and language

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Lynn Ramsay’s raw examination of maternal recriminations represents one of the finest entries in Tilda Swinton’s illustrious career and is one of the most thought-provoking films released in the last year.

Based on Lionel Shriver’s novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin explores a mother’s struggle to form an emotional bond with her child, Kevin. Swinton plays Eva as an woman estranged from her own child, giving birth to an ungrateful infant seemingly unwilling to form a relationship with her. Ramsay’s film looks at the story from Eva’s perspective, seldom giving the audience an exterior view of her difficulties. Are we experiencing a self-normalized version of events or, does Eva’s self-recrimination color her vastly bleak outlook on the events of her life.

Unwilling to settle for conventional storytelling techniques, Ramsay opens the film with a symbolic vignette featuring Eva in a sea of red liquid attempting to navigate a massive crowd. As they loft her onto their shoulders and pass her down the street, we can infer from the confusion, listlessness and terror on Eva’s face tha she is not a willing participant in whatever nightmare she’s having. Nothing else in the film equates to this unusual choice for an opening, but with the bizarre events that unfold in fractured memories through the film, this somewhat grizzly representation of Kevin’s birth sets the tone for the film. Eva never wanted to be pregnant and as the film depicts, it was her own frustration that ultimately pushed her son away, at least in her own mind, and since this film is told from her perspective, the opening neatly sets the tone for the entire film.

While an entire movie made up of these symbolic events would have been a frustrating and questionable concept, one more scene at some point would have been welcome. From there, the film doesn’t resort to the types of scene setups many independent films seem to believe is edgy, We Need to Talk About Kevin manages to keep its edge with off-kilter camera angles, filtered color schemes and stark compositions. There is no obvious bombardment of sensory stimuli, but you can’t leave the film without feeling carefully manipulated in what feels like a natural and evocative way.

Swinton is undeniably one of our great actresses. Her seemingly effortless performance in Kevin is emblematic of all that she’s done before now. Without relying on actorly tics, Swinton conveys a warm, accessible mother whose self-doubt temper her more winning qualities. Whenever she isn’t dealing with Kevin or thinking about him, she seems a normal and creative person with dreams and passions. In the middle of the film, Eva is assembling her own niche in their new home, a small office where she’s lovingly tacked up maps and photos to the wall crafting a friendly environment in which to work. The utter joy on her face is replaced moments later as Kevin takes mere minutes while she’s stepped out of the room to destroy what took her hours to build. That scene of the film alone delivers the very essence of her craft. The rest of the film only builds on her reputation.

John C. Reilly isn’t an actor I love, his many forays into idiotic comedy have soured me on him as an actor, yet he has the potential display an effective and compelling range. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, Reilly does more of the type of work I have liked in him than I’ve seen in some time. His role is a bit underwritten, but being that his character is being remembered through Eva’s mind, that simplicity and naivite fits nicely.

The discovery here is Ezra Miller who portrays Kevin, a self-aware, cocky teenager who seems to delight in his mother’s suffering. Although he easily conveys the contempt his character seems to have for his mother, or at least her impression of his contempt, its the scenes in which he tries to connect with her, abandoning his vicious ways that his talent shines. Anyone can play a petulent child, but it takes a gifted thespian to give them human emotion and frailty.

Coming out of We Need to Talk About Kevin, it’ easy to focus on the film’s finale, foreshadowed in bits and pieces as the film progresses; however, the magic of the film is in how challenging it is to look back, process and comprehend the depth on display in the film. Swinton’s performance alone defines Ramsay’s film in ways few other actresses could have and its that connection to the theme the audience needs to take and analyze. Can we examine our own failures and not see a tainted vision of those events. The outside world forms opinions too easily based on black-and-white ideals of morality and that external pressure exerts itself on our minds. We exacerbate our fears and memories to make them grimmer or more saintly than they really were and if we can understand how easily our minds are influenced by external and internal filters, we can more readily process our past and more fairly interpret it.
Review Written
September 4, 2012

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