If you can bear to sit through We Need to Talk About Kevin, you’ll be rewarded with a film you’re compelled to talk about afterwards. If you have children, you might take opposite sides on the nature vs. nurture controversy. What role do parents really play in the development of their children? Is there such a thing as a kid born bad? If you don’t have children, you might re-consider your desire for them. Yes, the film is that scary.
Scottish director Lynn Ramsay translates the award-winning novel of North Carolina-born Lionel Shriver into a fascinating non-linear cinematic experience. The story unfolds in memories of the unrepaired past as well as anxiety about future events to create a relentless, almost unbearable descent into dread. Some people have commented that the film’s unapologetic look at children is because neither the director nor the novelist have children. It’s an interesting trivia tidbit, but irrelevant, especially when paired with the fact that star Tilda Swinton is the mother of twins. With her eerie gaze and unbowed dignity, Swinton becomes a modern-day Madonna, holding her twisted son forever in a pieta of anguish and guilt.
Eva (Tilda Swinton) is a Manhattan-based travel writer who’s happily single, seeking out exotic locations and strange experiences. She marries even-tempered good provider Franklin (John C. Reilly) and when she becomes pregnant, they move into a sprawling suburban Connecticut home. While still in her womb, Eva’s first-born feels like an alien creature. Franklin bounces their baby boy with joy, while Eva stares ahead, numb. Even the birth of a second child, a sun-kissed girl, does nothing to improve Eva’s attitude toward her son.
Intercut with scenes from Eva’s contemporary life, in which we learn she is shunned for reasons unknown, we see Kevin growing from baby to toddler to teenager (Ezra Miller). Even while babbling in diapers, he reveals himself to be a hateful, manipulative, cruel child, a psychopath in the making. With dogged persistence, though, Eva performs all the things she hopes will make her a good mother. Nothing works. She and her son are two peas trapped in a hostile pod.
Flashing red lights throughout the story give hints of what might happen. You’re so involved in the film, you don’t want to recognize the forebodings of recent headlines.
You want teenage Kevin to find a friend and turn nicey-nice. You want his little sister to be safe. You want Eva and Franklin to wake up.
“You don’t look happy,” a worried Eva says to Kevin. “Have I ever?” Kevin retorts, the bad seed waiting to explode. His malevolence makes your skin crawl.
What’s maddening about the film is that despite its title, no one really talks about Kevin. Eva suffers in silence. Franklin remains clueless. You want to grab these people and throw them into family therapy. “Wake up!” you want to scream.
Being in New Age Asheville where hope always springs eternal, as the film hurtled toward its inevitable ending, I kept thinking of ways to help these people. “Eva, go into past-life regression,” I wanted to yell. “Find out why your kid hates you so much. Try astrology, or yoga, or meditation, try a gluten-free diet — hey, maybe the kid is just allergic. Try anything, please!”
Alas, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a brave and mature film. It reminds us that sometimes, no matter how many experts preach solutions, no matter how intensely we desire to make everything okay, for some people it’s just not possible. Sometimes there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes there will never be a happy ending.