Something awful has happened, but we don’t know what it is — that’s the basic premise behind director Lynne Ramsay’s latest effort, the much-lauded psychological thriller We Need To Talk About Kevin, a move that throws us in right at the deep end and never lets us up for air.
Confusion reigns from the outset, as we see a woman wrapped in the throes of some sort of ecstatic, celebratory feast that apparently involves a huge throng of revelers and lots and lots of stomped and smashed tomatoes. Or something. Truth be told, we’re never fully informed of exactly what is transpiring in this beautifully shot opening sequence, but we do come to learn that the woman the camera eventually fixes on is one Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), a hugely successful travel writer and editor who apparently finds herself involved in these kid of unorthodox situations pretty frequently.
Or, should that be, found herself involved in these kind of unorthodox situations pretty frequently, because in the very next scene we see Eva alone in a dilapidated house, waking up in a cold sweat to find that someone has thrown red paint all over her front porch and her car. There’s obviously quite a convoluted line that leads from situation A to situation B here, and the unraveling of that thread forms the film’s central narrative premise, with the remainder of the movie alternating between scenes involving the present-day Eva, quite obviously a broken, spent shell of a woman who punches the clock at a dingy storefront travel agency by day while studiously avoiding so much as even eye contact with any of her neighbors or fellow townsfolk during her off-hours, and the Eva of the past, a vivacious, globetrotting free-spirit who’s slowly, inexorably drawn earthward due to a vicious, self-defeating-spiral of a relationship with her eldest child, Kevin.
To be fair, Kevin’s not an easy child to raise from the get-go, as he cries constantly in Eva’s presence, to the point where she stands near jack hammers just to drown out the sound of his bawling. As he grows into toddler-hood, he proves increasingly uncooperative with her, while forming an almost-instantly-manipulative relationship with his father, Franklin (John C. Reilly), who alternates between thinking the sun rises and sets on his little boy and willfully ignoring his obvious behavioral problems (like wearing a diaper until near-adolescence) in the hope that they’ll simply go away. As the more youthful version of Kevin, played with disarming complexity given his years by Jasper Newell, gives way to a more transparently antisocial, perhaps even downright evil Kevin, played after the onset of puberty by Ezra Miller with a mixture of pure malevolence and the devious charm of the truly psychotic, we see his relationship with his mother grow more and more unhinged — yet also, perhaps conversely and perhaps not, more intertwined, to the point where both of them seem to need the conflict between them in order to survive, even though they both suspect only one of them is going to make it out alive since it’s clear that Kevin’s only goal in life has gradually become bringing Eva’s entire world crashing down on her.
Obviously, at some point he succeeds, as Swinton’s deservedly-ballyhooed, multifaceted performance shows. The Eva we see now isn’t even a shadow of the Eva we see in flashback, as a shadow bears at least some resemblance to the person casting it. And while nagging questions dog at the back of our minds throughout — most notably where are Kevin’s younger sister and father in this present-day scenario — it’s Swinton’s turn as Eva, in both the then and the now, that keeps us glued to the screen. From her physical mannerisms to her speech patterns to her social interactions, everything we see in the present day is a 180 degree turn from the way she acts, talks, even thinks in the film’s past-tense scenarios. Rarely does an actor display so much range in the space of a single film, and Swinton does so with an unforced naturalism that both grounds the movie in her character’s obviously tragic arc and increases its almost oppressive sense of mystery and foreboding as events play out and we find ourselves more and more drawn into needing to know just how the hell this amazingly brutal transformation could have occurred.
While I’m sworn to secrecy when it comes to giving away the final act that Kevin commits that absolutely ruins his mother’s life (just as he’d planned), I will say this — it’s both amazingly, audaciously vicious, and entirely believable. We’ve seen it play out on the evening news too many times to count by this point, but realizing, as he’s doing it, that his ultimate intended victim is not the people he’s doing it to but rather his own mother makes it all the more unconscionable, as the point is driven home that he views more or less the entire rest of the world as pawns in his unending power struggle with her, one that he’s determined to “win” at all costs.
It goes without saying that We Need To Talk About Kevin is anything but an easy film to watch. It’s a tragedy in the truest sense of the term, one portrayed in such detailed, intimate terms that we’re not even given the option of looking away. It raises the eternally uncomfortable question of nature vs. nurture — Kevin’s a “problem child” right from the start but Eva isn’t shy about letting him know that she’d rather be galavanting around the globe than be stuck at home with him — and thrusts it right into the forefront. And of course, in the end, there are only victims, no real survivors. Like the best dramatic fiction, it forces us to confront the darker corners of the human condition and examine how we would react given the same set of circumstances in our own lives. There are a lot of Kevins out there in the world, and whether of them ourselves. or we actively help create them, or we merely aid and abet them by not caring what’s happening in millions of families across the country and around the planet, to one degree or another we’re all guilty. There’s plenty of blame to go around, and Lynne Ramsay isn’t about to let any of us off the hook —nor give us easy answers to the difficult, but necessary, questions her film raises.
I’m reminded of a classic line from Penelope Spheeris’ punk-rock coming-of-age opus Suburbia — “everybody knows families don’t work.” We Need To Talk About Kevin certainly proves that statement correct — but they’re also all we’ve got. Go rest easy now, if you can.