Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin

Lynne Ramsey’s We Need To Talk About Kevin is a haunting film about a mother-son relationship prior to and after his high school killing spree. It will stay with you for a long time.

I felt like the one being bullied in Lynne Ramsey’s provocative film about one mother’s turmoil in the aftermath of her son’s high school killing spree. There’s an emotional ferocity about the way Ramsey nightmarishly portrays Tilda Swinton’s hollowed out response to the destructiveness of her offspring, as the director mixes tenses to disorientating effect. We follow an intelligent, career-driven and successful middle class parent struggling to mother a socially dysfunctional child and the cause-effect outcome of her son’s murderous rampage as the woman, bereft of all her luxuries, unsuccessfully tries to put back the pieces of a broken life.

Tilda Swinton’s Eva was once a flourishing travel writer. She lives with her husband in an affluent area and appears to have a very secure, conventionally happy base to begin a family. However, she fails to bond with her baby son who cries incessantly. She appears distant in her newborn’s presence, a sense that the pregnancy was probably unplanned and that the baby has disrupted her career goals. As the boy, named Kevin, grows older he exhibits odd, often destructive, behaviour and shuns his mother’s attempts to build a relationship.

When another unplanned pregnancy occurs, giving Eva a daughter, her growing concern over her son’s mental health comes to the fore. Events such as her daughter’s pet guinea pig disappearing and a tragic event when the young girl loses sight in her eye lead Eva to blame Kevin. Husband Franklin (Kevin C. Reilly) denies the boy has anything to do with it. The marriage strains under the pressure of Eva and Kevin’s continued stand off, as their son plots a devastating conclusion to his building psychosis.

“The chaos of Eva’s situation bleeds from every pore yet the vacuous nature of her life as it is now merits no need for outward emotion. It is a completely understated anguish – like a kettle endlessly boiling with the sound on mute, no one to turn off the gas.”

One of the interesting aspects of We Need To Talk About Kevin is the sense of blame inherent in a mother whose child has committed an unspeakable act. Eva is reminded every day of her son’s murderous rampage as members of the public scowl and talk behind her back as well as to her face. One woman greets her in the street with a slap in the face, another smashes her box of eggs in the supermarket. Indeed, the beginning of the film sees Eva’s affluent, middle class lifestyle reduced to squalor, living in a tiny, dishevelled house right next to a railway line. The house is splashed with red paint, from top to bottom, as is her car, presumably delivered with a single-finger salute from another angry member of the town. While Kevin is spared this humiliation inside his prison cell, Eva’s torture lives on, her tormentor replaced by the town, which will neither forgive nor forget what happened.

Central to this is the miraculous performance of Tilda Swinton. It wouldn’t surprise if we were to learn she suffered depression following the role given her complete immersion in this character’s bottled grief. The chaos of her situation bleeds from every pore yet the vacuous nature of her life as it is now merits no need for outward emotion. It is a completely understated anguish – like a kettle endlessly boiling with the sound on mute, no one to turn off the gas. If she screamed out loud, cried her heart out, showed anger to those people blaming her for Kevin’s terrible deed, it would be like giving life far more meaning than it deserved. She is now not worthy; not even to have a fresh egg for dinner. In one scene, where her chicken eggs are broken by an angry shopper while in the supermarket, she simply tells the counter-girl they’ll be fine and pays for them anyway. She goes home and slowly picks out broken shell from her scrambled egg supper. Like her son, she must be punished and she allows this to wash over her like the blood-red paint strewn across the front porch.

We Need To Talk About Kevin’s unique power is its ability to bully the viewer just as the central character must endure her tormentors. It is unforgivably hard to watch but its inherent sadness is its greatest power as the undercurrent of anger and remorse bubbles almost noiselessly in every scene. It is a shame that Kevin, depicted by Ezra Miller and the younger Jasper Newell at various periods in his life, at times falls into Damien-Thorn-son-of-the-devil territory, when the immovable eye and forlorn gaze into nothingness caricatures the sinister ambition. Yet, take nothing away from Swinton’s career-best turn. We Need To Talk About Kevin is undeniably a powerful beast; haunting, vivid, visceral and frightening.

Review by Daniel StephensSee all reviews

Directed by: Lynne Ramsay
Written by: Lynne Ramsay, Rory Stewart Kinnear
Starring: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller
Released: 2011 / Genre: Drama / Country: UK/USA / IMDB

Buy from Amazon.co.uk: DVD | Blu-ray

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Pete Reply

    Best film I’ve seen from 2011 I think. Great review!

  2. Castor Reply

    That kid was a creep from the instant he came out of her lol. Tilda Swinton, as always, is brilliant but the movie is a bit too heavy throughout for me.

  3. Chris Reply

    We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011), indeed a great performance by Tilda Swinton. Fascinating characters, but VERY tough to handle. Among my top 10 films of the last 12 months. I have the book on my shelf, but I don’t know if I dare touch it ( :

    A strange guilt complex with the mother, she cannot escape the feeling she didn’t really want Kevin to begin with, and I think her son can sense how “forced” her love for him is. But also maybe she is doing all she can in what seems to be a post-birth depression.I hadn’t thought about bullying the viewer, interesting point you make.

    I included interview quotes in my review, if you’re interested:
    http://bit.ly/LRjyy6

  4. Jaina Reply

    I just caught this on Sky and wow. Talk about intense. But it’s that quiet sort of intensity that’s just bubbling under the surface of every scene.

    I don’t know about you, but I thought of her life after Kevin’s big event, as a sort of self-imposed punishment. Kevin’s in prison, but her, as a mother, still felt like the bore some responsibility for Kevin. She can’t lock herself away, but she’ll just take everything that’s thrown at her because she thinks it was all her fault.

  5. Thomas Reply

    “Kevin” still lingers at the top of the movies I have seen over the last two years, and I feel tempted to watch it again to see whether this holds up. Will I ever feel like really watching it again? Not so sure… A mother torn between parental feelings and human emotions, between feeling responsible for her son against all adversity and thoroughly despising him and his life (and his attitude towards her) is great cinema. Nobody should shy away from all the bleakness, because it is a film well done, it not only works on an intellectual level, but also on a cinematic one. You can be “entertained” by the film in a very satisfactory way: by watching a piece of art that often looks beautiful, has great actors, and you will come away from it as maybe a better, certainly a wiser person.
    My review at http://thomas4cinema.wordpress.com/2012/01/28/we-need-to-talk-about-kevin-lynn-ramsey-2011/

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