Tilda Swinton is at the age when Hollywood logic dictates that she must play mothers. In the absolutely un-Hollywood film We Need to Talk About Kevin, she takes to the task with characteristic nerve. While, say, Jodie Foster has played many fiercely protective moms ready to fight tooth and nail for their children, Swinton excels at creating women in chilly, uneasy relationships with their offspring. Her version of the protective mom had an unsettling neo-noir twist in The Deep End, and her White Queen in the Narnia movies was surely a dysfunctional parent figure. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, her Eva is defined principally by her parenthood, in the least comforting manner imaginable.
The movie opens in a blur of memories: Eva and Franklin (John C. Reilly), young and in love; Eva pregnant; Eva by herself, looking miserable; Eva at a crime scene, ambulance lights flashing. Eventually it becomes clear that the crime scene somehow involves Eva’s son, Kevin. The impressionistic image-jumping slows, settling on the parallel stories of Kevin aging from birth to 16 and Eva living in self-imposed exile following the unseen incident.
After 20 minutes or so, the movie seems far less elliptical: Kevin is a monster. That may sound dismissive, but it’s no less nuanced than the movie, which cleverly selects key moments from his childhood to crystallize his antagonistic, sometimes frightening relationship with Eva, but doesn’t fill in the spaces between with convincing experiences. He cries nonstop as an infant, refuses to speak or play or use the toiler properly as a toddler. During his early grade school years, (played by Jasper Newell), he’s increasingly unsettling. As a teenager (Ezra Miller), he’s yet even more unsettling, plus obnoxious.
These scenes do hold a certain fascination as Kevin’s creepiness progresses; he’s rarely more or less evil, but his capabilities change as he gets older. Young Kevin uses unspoken blackmail after his mother lashes out at him; the 15-year-old Kevin is more articulate, accepting an invitation to have dinner with his mother only to offer a brutal deconstruction of her attempt at friendly parenting. Ultimately, however, Kevin has so little wiggle room as a character that the movie can only attempt to balance itself by including bad behavior from Eva, too.
To this end, the movie implies that Eva may not have been ready for a child — she resists Franklin’s suggestion to move into the suburbs, though she does acquiesce — and takes advantage of Swinton’s apparently natural chilliness; even early in the movie, when her baby screams, she looks overwhelmed, at one point parking his stroller next to a construction site just to drown out the wailing.
Director Lynne Ramsay, who made Movern Callar, does have a way with striking (if hyperbolic) images like that. She finds endless ways to shoot Eva walking alone: down the street in troubled thought, down supermarket aisles trying to avoid eye contact with another mother, down a hallway in a sea of little girls in ballerina outfits. But she also makes bizarre leaps into grotesquerie, like the over-the-top retro-’80s shabbiness of the travel agency where Eva works. Swinton carries much of this thin material, and she’s never less than sympathetic. But this has more to do with Kevin’s pervasive awfulness than the movie’s storytelling.
The screenplay, adapted by Ramsay and Rory Kinnear from a novel by Lionel Shriver, introduces provocative ideas, but fails to develop them. By keeping some of Kevin’s actions off-screen, Ramsay does maintain ambiguity, however slight, about whether Kevin really is as poisonous as he appears to Eva. Reilly’s Franklin plays a genial version of the horror-movie spouse who dismisses warning signs past the point of reasoning. In one scene, he reassures Eva “That’s what boys do,” and though it’s not clear which of Kevin’s offenses he’s describing, it functions as a catch-all for his general state of denial. As a portrait of such denial, Franklin works well enough, but as a character, he never indicates Reilly’s most familiar aspects, empathy and cluelessness. His doubt of Eva never turns productive on a narrative or emotional level because the movie offers no alternative explanation for what we can only see as Kevin’s quiet, plotting madness.
That madness makes We Need to Talk About Kevin something of a horror movie. As such, it underscores Eva’s fear that Kevin reflects the monster in her, and as a teenager, he even resembles her: dark-haired, skinny, severe. This strategy dead-ends, too, because Kevin’s actions feel so inevitable and inhuman. As it expands its focus beyond the anguish of parent-child tragedy into a very public devastation, We Need to Talk About Kevin becomes a serious drama with an overlay of self-serious exploitation. In horror movies, children like Kevin are punished, often destroyed. Here, the child is allowed to destroy the movie.