We Need to Talk About Kevin opens with an image unlike any I’ve seen. The camera, initially raised to a bird’s eye view, slowly descends toward a red, clumpy sea. Look closer and the clumps of waves are not motions of the ocean, but people. Dozens, hundreds, thousands of people, swimming on top, through, and underneath each other. Look closer and the red sea isn’t blood, as one might expect (too bright, too red, too thin), but rather… what?
The closer the camera gets, the more confounded the viewer becomes. In short, I wasn't sure what I was looking at, or why, but I couldn't take my eyes off it. Which is a perfect way to describe the whole of Lynn Ramsay’s chilling, remarkable new film.
From the moment of his birth, Kevin has been a nightmare. He cries ceaselessly, his horrendous moans gurgled with tears and snot. Doctors say he is perfectly healthy, so, essentially, he’s crying for no apparent reason. Once he gets of age to know better, Kevin decides to always do the worst. He screams, he acts out, he punches, destroys, refuses to be potty trained – the acts of defiance are endless.
And that’s pretty much how it is for Eva (Tilda Swinton), Kevin’s mother, who, after Kevin’s birth, is anything from the once-carefree city girl she used to be. Eva and her kind, aimless husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly) used to live that life. That New York City loft life. Creating, dining, drinking, loving. The life of dreams. When Eva got pregnant, Franklin, despite Eva’s staunch opposition, suggested they move to the suburbs. They moved, Kevin was born, and the rest is hell.
We Need to Talk About Kevin, as you may suspect, isn’t a fluffy teenage angst picture. The kind where the arguments are forced and the resolution is happy-go-lucky. Every little thing is not gonna be all right. When you sit down for this film, you buckle into an intense, gut-wrenching, borderline agonizing experience. Gold for me, and hopefully for you too. Here’s why.
Say what you will about the film’s content, but We Need to Talk About Kevin is technically flawless. Its disjointed narrative scope, chiefly, lends itself seamlessly to the overall power of the film. The non-linear narrative has been all the rage since Tarantino resurrected Vincent Vega from the dead. It’s a tool I love and admire greatly. But it is also one that is horribly overused. In feeble hands, a jumpy narrative structure crumbles a film, but in editor Joe Bini (who cuts most of Werner Herzog’s films) and Ramsay’s hands, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a film propelled by its style. When we first meet Kevin, he’s played as a teenager by Ezra Miller, but we see the character at many different times in his life, and never in order. It’s a tactic that requires concentration, but it’s also one that, in this case, helps reveal the characters better than if the film was told in order.
In our jumping around, we sense very early that Kevin (as a grown teen) has done something horrible. Eva visits him regularly in prison; little is said, but volumes are spoken. I have no interest in revealing what Kevin has done, but believe me, the crimes he has committed are equally as horrifying as how Miller plays the role.
Two years ago, I stumbled across a film called Afterschool via OnDemand. I sat, watched, and by the time the credits rolled, I was unable to speak. The film was, and remains, the single best movie I’ve ever seen about teenaged angst. I gave at an A+, which can be credited to many things, namely the film’s star, Ezra Miller.
I’ve seen Miller once since then (in City Island, where he was given nothing to do), but 2011 was really his year. As Kevin, Miller is as stoically haunting as any teen character you’re likely to find on film. He’s alone, misguided, intelligent to the point of intimidation, and probably a bit psychotic. His Kevin is as chilling a portrayal of a teenager since, well, Miller’s role in Afterschool. (For the record, Miller had another brilliant performance last year, in Another Happy Day, which will be reviewed here shortly.) The kid is going places.
I’ve loved most every Tilda Swinton performance I’ve seen. Highlights include I Am Love, Julia, The War Zone, The Deep End, Michael Clayton, and so on. She’s got that perfect… thing. That Tilda Swinton thing. That regret and anguish. That torment and anger. Her role as Eva is her finest accomplishment to date. Period. An Oscar, which she certainly will not receive, would be too little praise.
Aside from its incredible performances, including Reilly and the other child actors who portray Kevin, We Need to Talk About Kevin boosts an eerily moving score (by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood), steely camera work, and an overall faultless mise-en-scène.
The only feature I’ve seen by Lynne Ramsay was her nearly-as-disturbing Morvern Callar, about a young woman who, after finding her boyfriend dead on his apartment floor from suicide, elects to do nothing about it. Images from that film have stayed imprinted in my mind since I saw it 10 years ago. I’m sure We Need to Talk About Kevin will do the same. A