A mother sits across from her imprisoned son during a visit. She looks into his eyes and asks, “Why?” He has no answer.
A searing psychological drama cum horror film, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” examines this complex mother-son relationship that seems cursed from the very start. The idea of a pregnant woman fearing her child will be evil or sociopathic on some level, or that she will not feel genuine love for the child, is familiar. This film takes it a step further and asks, what if the child were to recognize this reluctance?
Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) and her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly), decide to have a child. Eva is half-hearted and unsure about pregnancy. She is a free spirit who loves to travel and take walks in the rain. Even so, she goes through with it, giving birth to a son named Kevin.
As Kevin grows from a baby into a teenager, his relationship with Eva grows more complex. As a baby, he relentlessly screams and cries whenever he and Eva are alone. Already, his behavior appears to be a personal vendetta against his mother. She senses it, and as he grows into a toddler (played by Rock Duer) and then into preadolescence (played by Jasper Newell), he exhibits an increasingly dark demeanor toward her. By the time Kevin is a teenager (played by Ezra Miller), the deck appears to be stacked in favor of tragedy.
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” is based on a novel by Lionel Shriver, which was structured as a collection of letters from Eva to Franklin regarding their son’s behavior and actions. Scottish director Lynne Ramsey wisely restructures the story in a much less extroverted way, creating a more reflective film soaked with dread and the inability to communicate—no one really talks about Kevin, making the urgent title of the film all the more important.
Ramsey freely floats back and forth through time, showing Eva in present day, and then what seems like so long ago, before Kevin ended up in prison for a horrifying act. Much of what goes on in the film comes from Eva’s mind as she fruitlessly tries to come to terms with what her son has done, and her own culpability in everything that has happened.
Many elements make this a deeply challenging film, including its refusal to adhere to the traditional ways this kind of subject matter has been handled in past films.
For instance, Eva is not a perfect mother. She resents Kevin just as he does her, and there is little effort to explain exactly why. When Kevin is a toddler, Eva exclaims that she would rather be in France than here with him, and rolls his stroller into a busy construction site to escape his shrill cries. A few years later, he purposefully soils his diaper and pushes her to a breaking point ending with a broken arm—a small victory for Kevin.
They reach some kind of twisted understanding, and after Kevin is locked up, Eva is left empty. She has to live with everything that has gone on before, including her initial decision to have a child.
Consider the character of Eva, the emotionally challenging role played by the fearless Tilda Swinton, whose restrained performance here is chillingly sincere and heartbreaking. In a career of many stunning screen performances, this is one of Swinton’s best.
Swinton is the most honest and powerful actress working today, and in this film, an equally sincere supporting cast surrounds her, including John C. Reilly as her overly optimistic husband, Siobhan Fallon as a reluctant boss and the many young actors who play Kevin, especially Ezra Miller, whose eyes pierce the soul.
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” is the third film by Ramsey, who has a fascinating visual style. Many images appear almost dreamlike, floating in the atmosphere somewhere between the body and soul. She also plays with the color red, which carries with it all kinds of connotations.
One of the year’s best films, “We Need To Talk About Kevin” will leave us talking about Kevin for years to come. Maybe someday, we will be able to answer Eva’s question, “Why?”