Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)


For an alternate take on We Need To Talk About Kevin, check out Jason McKiernan’s review.

A self-styled exploration of the nature versus nurture debate, We Need to Talk About Kevin brings Lionel Shriver’s acclaimed 2003 epistolary novel to life onscreen. Haunted by her past and reviled by all around her for the actions of her son Kevin, Eva Khatchadourian looks back on her child’s life from conception to present, struggling to find the key to his behaviour. Weighed down by worsening alcoholism and a sense of self-hatred, Eva considers whether it is actually she herself who is to blame.

Few films this year begin with such vivid imagery as We Need to Talk About Kevin, its opening scene showing us Eva being hoisted over a swarming mass of people covered in a chunky red concoction of paint and goodness knows what else. Is this a memory of some youthful frivolity? An externalization of Eva’s sense of claustrophobic suffocation amid a sea of sanguine bodies? Director Lynne Ramsey, this her third feature outing, displays a marvelous grasp of the semiotics of cinema, many scenes constructed like this in a manner befitting both reality and Eva’s state of mind. She is a woman consumed by grief, self-loathing, and the draining burden of unanswered questions. Each glimpse at the world around her reaffirms her sensations of maternal guilt, each waking moment haunted by daydreams of flashing lights and sirens. A recurring scene sees her desperately struggling to remove red paint splattered across her home by some unknown disapprover, a fantastic expression of her grief and her insatiable need to wash her hands of this horror. Tilda Swinton portrays Eva with a catatonic distance, the slowness of her motion and vacancy of her eyes more befitting a zombie than a human being. Swinton is a phenomenal facial performer, the briefest furrowing of her brow or wrinkling of her eyes clueing us into the evolving mental state of her character as she struggles to find an emotion to cling to in her vast chasm of uncertainty and meaninglessness. The magnificently silent scenes wherein she visits Kevin — portrayed as an adolescent by a stirringly creepy Ezra Miller — in prison display the full strength of Swinton’s performance, her twitching hands and minutest winces telling us all we need to know.

Not all, alas, is as wonderful as We Need to Talk About Kevin’s acting and direction. The film postulates itself as a take on the burden of maternity and the age-old question of who is to blame for the sins of the child. These thoughts occupy Eva’s mind constantly, her unwavering sense of responsibility is the very essence of this story. Yet, there is a problem in the film’s implementation which holds it back from relishing fully in the exploration of these questions. From an early scene in which Kevin — quite literally — refuses to play ball with Eva, the maliciousness of his character is blatantly apparent, his ferocious glares recalling The Omen’s Damien Thorn. The character of Kevin builds on a long tradition of “demon-children” in horror, portrayed more often than not as overtly sinister. With such a straightforward presentation of the character as evil, Eva’s sense of responsibility seems far less justified than it ought to be. Though shifting camera focus early in the film appears to suggest a certain subjectivity to all we see — these memories are, after all, filtered through Eva’s notably tarnished mind — Kevin is the definite bad guy here, the blame accorded his mother wholly unfair given the underlying monstrousness he demonstrates from his earliest days. His amiable relationship with his father — John C. Reilly, far improved from the dismal days of Step Brothers — only accentuates this intentional malignance toward his mother. Though this could be seen as Eva’s own distorted view of her child, later events in the narrative seem to suggest otherwise, leaving a great concept tarnished by a mismanaged approach.

This unfortunately significant problem aside, We Need to Talk About Kevin has much to recommend. Its exploration of the concept of nature versus nurture may be compromised by its overly theatrical portrayal of Kevin as a monster, but there are still interesting points raised on the issue of guilt and the manner in which it consumes its victims entirely, eating them from the inside out. Swinton’s stoicism in the face of communal hatred is a tough thing to watch, the emotions we know must be welling within her character overflowing into us regularly throughout the film. Ramsey’s direction works equally well to sell the character’s complexities and the tumultuousness of her mindframe, the askew camera angles she employs reinforcing the excellence of Swinton’s performance. The editing and pulsating score, too, play an invaluable part in crafting the film’s atmosphere of bad things to come. Those bad things, revealing themselves in their full extent toward the end of the film, induce a sensation of stomach-churning discomfort as we realize the full extent of this guilt, masterfully concluding a gripping study of a convincing character.

Suffering a considerable problem in that its central question is unintentionally answered in its execution, We Need to Talk About Kevin still manages to function as an engaging dissection of moral ambivalence and notions of guilt. It may be clear to us that Eva is not to blame, but it is still no less engaging to watch Swinton and Ramsey communicate the extent of her inner torture. Richly symbolic, directed with an almost Bergmanesque appreciation of colour, and masterfully constructed to give the viewer as little comfort as possible, We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of the strongest films of the year.

[notification type=”star”]85/100 - Richly symbolic, directed with an almost Bergmanesque appreciation of colour, and masterfully constructed to give the viewer as little comfort as possible, We Need to Talk About Kevin is one of the strongest films of the year.[/notification]


About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.