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Dustin Putman

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We Need to Talk
About Kevin
3½ Stars
Directed by Lynne Ramsay.
Cast: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller, Ashley Gerasimovich, Jasper Newell, Siobhan Fallon, Alex Manette.
2011 – 112 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for disturbing violence and behavior, some sexuality and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, December 5, 2011.
There have been innumerable films made turning children and teens into vessels to be feared rather than fawned over (2007's "Joshua" is a recent unsung treasure), and ever since the tragic 1999 events at Columbine there have been almost as many exploring the cause-and-effect—or lack of solid answers—behind school violence (among them, 2002's unforgettable "Elephant" and 2008's "The Life Before Her Eyes"). Most recently, 2011's stirring, overlooked "Beautiful Boy" starred Maria Bello and Michael Sheen as parents left lost and reeling after their son shoots up his college campus before turning the gun on himself. What could they have done? How did they not notice the warning signals? And, most of all, why? For "We Need to Talk About Kevin," based upon the novel by Lionel Shriver, writer-director Lynne Ramsay (2002's acclaimed if little-seen "Movern Callar") takes a challenging, thematically provocative stance on an old topic by telling it solely from the point-of-view of a mother who wonders if she might have had something to do with the way her psychologically disturbed son turned out. For that matter, how much of what she sees is true, and how much is skewed by her own preconceived judgments and harshly critical biases? In a freakish nightmare there's no waking up from, her only choice is to live with the guilt, with the remorse, and with the nagging questions she'll never know the answers to.

Without wasting a second of screen time, Ramsay and co-writer Rory Stewart Kinnear have impeccably crafted a narrative that, in its immaculate construction, criss-crosses through time like a free-floating stream of consciousness. One minute we are at an overseas tomato festival, picking up with Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) while she's still young and the possibilities of the world seem endless. Then we're planted in front of a construction site, the overwhelming sound of a worker drilling into the road just what Eva needs to drown out the incessant crying of her fussy infant son, Kevin. Eva also has a precocious, eyepatch-wearing daughter, Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich), and in the next scene the cold, calculating 15-year-old Kevin (Ezra Miller) is a 6-year-old boy (Jasper Newell) who tests his mom until she shoves him in frustration and hurts his arm. Even at such a young age, Kevin might as well be a professional liar, enabling Eva not to protect her but to jab his claws in her all the more. Years later, Eva's sprawling suburban home and spacious backyard have been traded in for a ratty, compact box of a house in a depressed, lower-income neighborhood. Her family, including husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), don't appear to be around anymore, and the façade of her home has been marked with damning splashes of red paint, makeshift blood all the better to taint Eva with the plaguing wounds of her past.

It would be easy to label Kevin as evil, a young boy rotten to the core and dead inside. There is no denying that he's mentally unstable with sociopathic tendencies. But would he have turned out this way had Eva ever wholeheartedly accepted him? At birth, she looks at him as something that has encroached upon her life. He cries a lot, and so he isn't an easy baby. As a little boy, he refuses to potty-train and wears diapers long past when he should. Old enough to see the feelings of discomfort, even disdain, in his mother's eyes, Kevin matures, but never stops testing her. As a brother, he's passive-aggressive, and, as a son to his father, he likes to put on an act of normalcy. With Eva, though, it's different. She's not a terrible person—she tries to connect with him, taking him to play putt-putt and out to dinner, just the two of them—but it always ends in hurt feelings and, coming from the perceptive Kevin, painful unleashed truths. When, in one scene, Eva unleashes a harsh tirade on obese people, it has nothing to do with anything other than her prickly own interior. She's not always the warmest of people, either. It's hard to say if Eva loves Kevin the way a parent normally loves a child, but maybe so; how else to explain her prison visits to see him after he rips her, his, and an entire town's world apart?

"We Need to Talk About Kevin" provides a collection of non-linear snapshots and trusts the viewer to put it all together alongside the heroine. The film is enlivened with spontaneity because of this unorthodox approach, and also a classical, hallucinatory horror vibe in the vein of 1968's "Rosemary's Baby." The difference is that Kevin is not Satan's spawn, but a human boy with an ocean of troubles. For Eva, whatever ultimately comes to pass has left her alone, slightly disheveled, and piercingly vulnerable. She gets a job at a travel agency called Travel R Us and overworks while trying to blend in with the wallpaper. On Halloween, cloaked revelers dressed as demons and ghosts stalk her movements (scored frighteningly to Buddy Holly's "Everyday"), though it's never cemented whether or not this is her psyche haunting her or really happening. At a company Christmas party, a would-be pleasant time turns rancid when a co-worker (Alex Manette) comes onto Eva as she sits off to the side of the room like a sheepish schoolgirl, then verbally assaults her when she politely turns down his invite to dance. The mere act of walking down the street is a tough one for Eva these days; in a town that knows all too well who she is, she's destined to run into someone with connections to her, and how that goes is up for grabs.

From trading genders in 1993's "Orlando" to learning fluent Italian for 2010's "I Am Love," Tilda Swinton has always been, and continues to be, absolutely fearless. Having no qualms about baring body and soul if the role requires it, she tosses out any chances for artifice and becomes the characters she plays. As Eva, Swinton is the focus of just about every scene and she's mesmerizing. Not the kind of actor who needs to be liked all the time, she instead portrays a person with so much gray area the other color has drained out of her being. Battered and clinging to a rock wall with no ledges, she is knocked down repeatedly in scenes of extraordinarily rhapsodic discomfort. Swinton plays the part as her own judge and jury, casting stones that finally begin to bounce back at her. In his calculated, detached, super-intelligent reading of the title figure, Ezra Miller (2011's "Another Happy Day") emulates to eerie perfection that strange sensation of someone standing behind you, one step away from breathing down your neck. There doesn't seem to be any humanity in his actions or thoughts—his reaction to his mom walking in on him masturbating is skin-crawling—which makes the fact that he is human more disconcerting. Supporting performances are as naturalistic as photographer Seamus McGarvey's (2009's "The Soloist") cinéma vérité lensing, with John C. Reilly (2011's "Cedar Rapids") approaching Franklin as a father and husband more apt to trust his kids than his wife—a grievous mistake—and young Ashley Gerasimovich (2010's "Fair Game") casting a light of contrasting innocence on Celia that Kevin has never known.

"We Need to Talk About Kevin" is utterly chilling more for its restraint in what it suggests without necessarily showing. From a missing hamster to the circumstances surrounding Celia's eyepatch to an archery set Franklin gives his son, well-versed moviegoers will no doubt wait in expectation for thriller conventions to follow. Director Lynne Ramsay goes a different route while deepening the grave aura of unease, careful to also see the flip side. Out of tragedy, one's propensity for compassion sometimes flourishes; a scene where Eva holds the hand of a distraught mother whose child is also locked up is something she never would have done in the past. More than that, however, the film is profoundly devastating as the story of lives ruined over nothing. When, in one of the final scenes, Eva finally asks Kevin why he did what he did, his answer is more telling than it might at first seem: "I used to think I knew, but now I'm not so sure." What a waste. "We Need to Talk About Kevin" has a fitting title; once seen, it will be impossible for viewers to hold back on their conversations about it.
© 2011 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman