We Need to Talk About Kevin

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/26/12 20:58:27

"Red Tales"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

"We Need to Talk About Kevin" may have gotten skunked in regards to the recently announced Academy Award nominations but if there was a prize awarded for Worst First Date Film of 2011--and for all I know, there may well have been--it would have snatched that particular trophy in a heartbeat. This is a grim, alienating and depressing work from start to finish and when it was over, I left the screening feeling grim, alienated and depressed. Admittedly, these are sensations that many moviegoers go to extraordinary lengths to avoid experiencing while at the multiplex but I have no problem with them as long as the film in question is grim, alienating and depressing in thoughtful and interesting ways and that is where "We Need to Talk About Kevin" comes up short. It has no problem with supplying some of the saddest, creepiest and most cringe-worthy images and ideas of any recent movie--consider the notion that the sight of an adorable little girl sporting a patch covering the eye lost in an "accident" is not the most horrible thing it has to offer--but it doesn't have much to say about them, certainly not to justify the borderline-hideous experience of watching them play out.

Based on a novel by Lionel Shriver--acclaimed by many and unread by me--"We Need to Talk About Kevin" offers viewers the grisly spectacle of what occurs when a woman painfully unsuited for the twin yokes of motherhood and domesticity gives birth to a child who may very well be a complete monster whose entire existence seems to be dedicated to torturing her in any and every manner imaginable and then some. She is Eva Katchadourian (Tilda Swinton), a budding bohemian whose dreams of traveling the world are nipped in the bud when a grim night of inexplicable passion with ordinary schlump Franklin (John C. Reilly) results in an unexpected pregnancy, a rushed marriage and the immediate dashing of her dreams. Needless to say, this is not an especially joyous time for Eva and when she finally gives birth to son Kevin, her immediate reaction to the event is that of relief that this thing is finally out of her. Eva goes through the motions of attempting to bond with Kevin (played as a toddler by Rock Duer and as a pre-teen by Jasper Newell) but he aggressively resists her at every turn and seems to go out of his way to make Eva's life a living hell. As an infant, he screams so incessantly that when his cries are briefly drowned out by a nearby jackhammer, it comes as a brief and blessed relief. When he is a couple of years old, he refuses to talk and continues to poop himself long after he should be going to the toilet. When he is a little older, he trashes a room that his mother has carefully decorated for no good reason. Eva is at a loss as to what to do with Kevin and even when she finally snaps at one point and inadvertently breaks his arm, he covers up what really happened and uses that knowledge as fodder for further psychological torture.

To make matters even more infuriating for Eva, Kevin seems to focus all his creepy monstrousness on her alone--he immediately switches to cheerful mode whenever his dad is around, if only so that he can deduce that Eva's complaints about his misbehavior are exaggerations. As the years go by, her life becomes even more miserable--Kevin (played as a teenager by Ezra Miller) is still a sullen thug hell-bent on torturing her--even his rare moments of softer behavior feel like he is merely reloading for newer and crueler assaults--and a move from the city to sprawling-but-bland suburbs only adds to the deadening of her soul. There is a brief respite when she and Franklin have a second child, angelic daughter Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich), that she showers with love and affection but even that is marred as the result of an incident that causes the girl to lose an eye--an incident that Eva is certain that Kevin is responsible for but which there is enough circumstantial evidence to implicate herself as well. Eventually, it all becomes too much and Eva and Franklin agree to split up--no question as to whom the children will go with--but before that can happen, there is a final and hideous incident that results in the family being destroyed for good and leaves Eva a pariah who spends her days working a crap job amidst the continuous scorn and hatred of her neighbors and her days alone stumbling through her crummy house in a drunken stupor that isn't enough to quell the memories of what Kevin did or her perceived culpability.

"We Need to Talk About Kevin" was directed and co-written by Lynne Ramsey, the Scottish filmmaker who made a name for herself on the world film circuit with her first two features, the equally heavy dramas "Ratcatcher" and "Morvern Callar," the latter of which debuted nearly a decade ago. During that gap, she spent a long time working on an adaptation of "The Lovely Bones" before it slipped through her hands and wound up in the clutches of Peter Jackson, whose 2007 film version was an enormous botch. Clearly the notion of a seemingly normal family being touched by unspeakable evil--from without in "The Lovely Bones" and from within here--seems to have sparked something of interest in Ramsey but while it is unclear as to what she might have had to say about the subject in "The Lovely Bones" (though it could not have been more incompetently executed than it was in Jackson's version), what she has given us here is so utterly muddled, both dramatically and thematically, that it becomes impossible to determine what she is going for here. At its heart, I suppose it is trying to examine the whole nature vs. nurture discussion revolving around human behavior that people have been arguing for time immemorial but for all the profound and noble artistic intentions on display here, you will find more thoughtful contemplations on the subject in any number of Three Stooges shorts than you will here.

I have no idea if the book took a more balanced approach to this story but in the film, the story is so slanted in favor of the kid simply being born evil that it hardly matters that Eva was hardly Mom of the Year material unless we are to believe that the kid was picking up on her bad vibes in utero and spent every one of his days making her pay for not playing classical music to him in the womb. I suppose that it could be argued that since virtually the entire story is told through Eva's eyes, the sheer monstrousness of of Kevin is an exaggeration that she has built up in her mind as a way of coping with his actions and how her behavior may have shaped and influenced him--a theory somewhat bolstered by the way that the narrative flows in and out between her present-day post-tragedy agony and her flashbacks to the key events of the poisonous mother-son relationship and some of the details in the final scene--but if that is the case, Ramsey has made it so ambiguous as to be virtually impenetrable. I don't mind a story that is oblique in certain regards as long as there is some point to it but for the most part, it felt as if Ramsey was too busy larding her film with level-one symbolism (the color red is so relentlessly accentuated that I thought at one point that my rods and cones had gone all screwy) and slightly-less-subtle ironic commentary via the soundtrack selections to ever get around to deciding what it was that she wanted to say in the first place.

As a result, "We Need to Talk About Kevin" comes across less like the powerful and profound drama that it clearly wants to be and more like an excruciatingly arty version of the old horror-exploitation standby of the killer kid, a trope that has been deployed in the past in works ranging from the Broadway-sanctified "The Bad Seed" to grindhouse insanity like "The Children" to mass-market takes like the Vera Farmiga vehicles "Joshua" and "Orphan." Mixing artiness and horror is not as inexplicable a conceit as it may sound on the surface--arguably the greatest horror film of all time, Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" did just that and filmmakers like David Cronenberg and Pedro Almodovar have done exhilarating work straddling that border as well. However, those guys at least seemed equally interested in both the art and the trash while Ramsey stresses only the former without acknowledging the latter and this imbalance winds up undermining much of what she is trying to achieve, especially when she devotes so much energy to showing how smart she is with the little things that she fails to notice the inexplicable details that even the most vulgar sleaze merchant might have at least tried to eliminate or at least explain.

For one thing, even if one buys the idea that a free spirit with no interest in motherhood would choose not to get an abortion (and while I don't specifically recall anything along these lines, I am willing to concede there might have been some explanation regarding this), there is absolutely no way that anyone could buy or even rent the notion of Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly together even as a one-night stand, let alone as a plausible version of a married couple--not even the admittedly heroic efforts by both actors throughout are able to create this illusion for even a second. Also, we are supposed to believe throughout the film that Eva has become persona non grata in town with ordinary people literally walking up off the street to punch her in the face in retribution for the actions of her son but once we are finally privy to the details of what actually happened that day (which also beggar belief, but never mind) and realize that they would have almost certainly become public knowledge at some point, those reactions wind up coming across as extremely unlikely. Shunned? Perhaps. Slugged? Perhaps not. Unless, of course, this too is being filtered through her guilt-line memories as well but that once again brings us back to the whole notion of the film's questionable ambiguity.

To be fair, "We Need to Talk About Kevin" does have its fair share of virtues--the chief one being the high-wire act that is Tilda Swinton's daring and edgy performance (although this coming on top of her similarly outstanding work in the similarly uneven "I Am Love" suggests a worrisome trend of delivering stunning work in films that don't especially deserve them)--and I suppose that a film of this type does deserve the kind of special consideration that one might not afford to a cinematic gumdrop like "Contraband" or "Underworld 4". The problem is that this is a film that wants to tackle difficult subject matter without really having any idea about what it wants to say about it--films like "Elephant" and "Margaret," for all their flaws, had far more interesting things to say, respectively, about the idea of kids doing unthinkable acts and the guilt of people whole survive tragedies for which they blame themselves, rightly or wrongly. This plays more like an art installation than anything else and while that does inspire some interesting moments, it will also inspire some degree of frustration among those viewers wishing that Ramsey would just get on with it already.

In the end, "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is the kind of puzzling and polarizing cinematic experience that will stun some viewers with its technique and audacity while appalling others who will find it to be a cruel exercise in sadism that has been made for one to endure instead of enjoy. I cannot say for sure what side of the fence you might land and as a result, I therefore cannot tell you whether you should see it or not. What I can tell you is that is you do decide to see it after all, you will--regardless of whether you "liked" it or not--emerge from the theater with a need for a drink and a shower, a possible recalibration on your views regarding birth control and a burning desire to never see it again for as long as you live

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