BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC The opening image in director Lynne Ramsay’s suburban nightmare, We Need To Talk About Kevin, is of household curtains blowing in the dark, accompanied to the sound of a sprinkler’s rhythmic spraying, with the image ultimately burning out into white light. The natural elements, water, air, and light should all be comforting but something foreboding is behind that curtain, something that we won’t see until the final act of this grim domestic horror story.
Similarly, the bond between mother and child is sacred part of life, yet when it comes to Eva (Tilda Swinton) and her son Kevin, those natural ties supply a sentimental cover for pure evil. In a story told from the fractured perspective of Eva’s rattled mind, we see motherhood as a cruel and treacherous trap, because since his birth Kevin’s goal in life is to dispense pain and hatred to his mother. Kevin begins life as a squalling infant who Eva can’t calm and throughout the film he grows into a five year old who refuses to be toilet trained, an adolescent dedicated to destruction, and finally a teen capable of mass murder. Nothing Eva does can reach the kid and We Need To Talk About Kevin spends most its running time delivering one grisly failure after another as Eva has her kindness repaid with violence and psychological torture.
Early on, it becomes apparent that Kevin has committed a Columbine-style high school massacre but his psychological profile doesn’t fit the bullied and violence-obsessed lives of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the notorious Columbine shooters. Kevin (played as a teen by a too-beautiful Ezra Miller) instead seems to have been malevolent from birth, a role he accepts with great poise and discipline. In fact his character makes little sense, in a world presented with sharply-detailed naturalism, Kevin is about as fantastic a character as Hannibal Lechter, always one step ahead of the game and in complete emotional control at all times. Oddly, outside of Eva, none of the characters rise above one-dimensional, they’re all just there to illuminate the nightmare of Eva’s life.
But Lynne Ramsay is no ordinary director. In her slim filmography of only three features since 1999, Ramsay has show a rich gift for immersive, dream-like visuals that place the viewer deep in the heads of their protagonists. Similar to her debut Ratcatcher, We Need To Talk About Kevin traffics in guilt and isolation after violent death sends its main character over the edge. We see Eva as a new mother early on in the film, but the story unspools in fits and starts that go backward and forward in time, like Eva herself was meditating on her life, looking for clues on what made Kevin become a killer. If her husband (a slightly out-of-place John C. Reilly) is unshakably clueless about the killer under his roof, perhaps his simplistic depiction is the product of Eva’s unclear mind or her selective memory. Actually, it feels more like inadequate script-writing, but the film at least benefits from being rich enough to consider Eva an unreliable narrator of the story’s events.
Because of the story’s construction, we know where the narrative is headed all along, its only the gorgeous cinematography of Seamus McGarvey and the tightly-wound performance from the dependable Ms. Swinton that keep us engaged. When we get to the end, Ramsay gives us an explicit non-answer to explain the mystery of Kevin. But of course Kevin’s actions are inexplicable, the film refuses to supply any evidence that nurture or experience has had any effect on the teenager. This renders Eva guiltless in Kevin’s crimes, preserving the mystery of the nihilistic life but also being a bit more generous to Eva than a truer reality would allow.