THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
"WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN"
Tilda Swinton camouflages herself.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a tragedy of the highest order, yet it's not the kind of tragedy you're probably thinking of. When used in the context of talking about a movie, the word “tragedy” brings to mind a tearjerker, a Love Story or a Notebook. You won't shed tears at Kevin, although if you do, it'll be because the thought of what happens is just too painful to contemplate. Am I making this sound like something you want to avoid? I hope not, because this film has a lot of truth in it, as well as one of the most dazzling performances you'll see this year.
Tilda Swinton plays Eva, a travel writer married to Franklin (John C. Reilly). In the early scenes, we can see that many people in her town hate her, and that she seemingly hates herself. The reasons for this are not initially clear, although it seems to have something to do with her son Kevin. The film flashes back to his early childhood. Eva, perhaps somehow not in possession of the nurturing gene, couldn't stand her colicky baby. The constant crying drove her mad. As a toddler, Kevin refused to respond to her. In frustration, she emotionally distanced herself. As a teen, he is openly hostile of her, often going out of his way to be irritating. But while she is the most frequent target of his hostility, she's hardly the only one. Kevin has deeply anti-social tendencies. Franklin doesn't see it, which leads to conflict with Eva. At the end, the exact nature of Kevin's issue is revealed, driving home the reason why Eva has been beating herself up.
We Need to Talk About Kevin asks a very uncomfortable question: What would you do if you honestly didn't like your own child? That idea may sound inconceivable to you. It does to me as well. However, I know people who feel that way about their kids. You probably do too. It happens. Perhaps due to some personality issues of her own, Eva was never able to bond with her son, and that has led to tragic results for both of them. The film tracks the isolation and regret she feels. Eva is in a perpetual state of confusion: she really thinks Kevin has grown up to be an unlikeable jerk, yet she also feels the burden of responsibility for the person he's become. There's also the painful realization that, had his developmental years been more successful, other people outside the family would not have been affected by his behavior. Watching the story unfold is a devastating experience. It makes you very aware of your own parenthood (if, indeed, you are a parent); it makes you recognize that your mistakes will directly impact your children, which in turn will set them on the course they'll take for the rest of their lives. Few movies have ever suggested exactly how much hangs in the balance during child-rearing.
Tilda Swinton is magnificent in the lead role. Always an expressive actress, Swinton show us the mass of swirling emotions Eva is feeling. She's all alone; Franklin has never seen Kevin's dark side, and so he has no sympathy for what his wife goes through. Swinton's haunted eyes convey a world of emptiness and hurt, as the character realizes that Kevin's shortcomings are a reflection of her own. Kevin is played by several actors at different ages, but Ezra Miller (as the teenage incarnation) is downright chilling. There's an unspoken yet palpable battle waging between the mother and son. Miller makes a solid adversary for Swinton that gives the film its most disturbing edge.
Director Lynne Ramsay uses fractured time narrative to create a sense of unease; Kevin's growth is interspersed with present-day scenes of Eva struggling to cope. This approach gives the movie a really nightmarish feel. I wish Ramsay didn't feel the need to overdo it on the symbolism. This is my sole complaint. There are points in which the symbolism is laid on so thick that I felt it momentarily take me out of the story. For example, tomatoes are often used to represent blood. The opening finds Eva participating in Spain's annual Tomatina tomato fight. It appears as though she's covered in blood. In a later scene, she hides in a supermarket by standing in front of rows and rows of tomato cans, figuratively suggesting that she has blood on her hands. Ramsay does such a brilliant job evoking a tragic tone that she doesn't need this kind of thing to drive the themes home.
Still, that is a small complaint given how strong everything else is. We Need to Talk About Kevin is loaded with ambiguity. Most movies present parenthood as a triumph or, at worst, a learning experience. This one shows the darker side of things, the side in which mistakes lead to horrible consequences. Eva was not a good mother to her son. She figures that out way too late. This powerful, provocative movie breaks your heart and sends a chill up your spine simultaneously.
( 1/2 out of four)
We Need to Talk About Kevin is rated R for disturbing violence and behavior, some sexuality and language. The running time is 1 hour and 52 minutes.
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