Film Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin

Evil psycho kids can often be a guilty cinematic pleasure, but here, the pretentious, self-conscious, slow direction drains all of the fun.

To that dark gallery of psychotic movie brats—Damien in The Omen, Macaulay Culkin’s Henry in The Good Son and, of course, that pigtailed template, Patty McCormack’s Rhoda in The Bad Seed—now add the titular character of We Need To Talk About Kevin. The big difference, however, is that those earlier films strived for nothing more than pulpy entertainment, while this one aims for art, in the worst way possible.

Director/co-writer Lynne Ramsay has adapted a bestseller by Lionel Shriver about a highly conflicted woman, Eva (Tilda Swinton), who gives birth to a son, Kevin (in chronological order, Rocky Duer, Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller), with whom she never bonds and who is one weird, alienated number to begin with. It starts in the cradle, with his incessant crying, which magically stops when his father, Franklin (John C. Reilly), holds him, and continues into puberty, with a toxically hostile attitude to Mom and menacing behavior towards his little sister Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich). The outcome is unthinkably ugly, with Eva still left in the dark as to where it all went so terribly wrong.

This might have been a good, juicy potboiler, however nasty, had Ramsay told her story more simply. Instead, it’s overlong, due to her promiscuous auteur-ism, which provides many a longueur and covers her film like one very wet, stifling blanket. She’s fond of long, wordless sequences filled in with a schizophrenic variety of songs on the soundtrack, ranging from early blues to The Beach Boys’ “In My Room” (a drearily literal choice when Eva decides to search Kevin’s weirdly immaculate bedroom). Ramsay favors a needlessly fractured structure, with oblique flashbacks to, say, Eva enjoying the Tomato Festival in Spain, or a happier time with Franklin, who woefully encourages Kevin’s interest in archery from toddler time. Ramsay uses huge close-ups of eyes, again far too literal, especially when the plotline has poor little Celia losing one, and also floods her screen with red at especially fraught moments. You get little idea of what Eva and Franklin actually do for a living, which affords them such a nice, big house (which is unconvincingly art-directed to a fault), nor what really keeps them together.

Swinton and Reilly must be the most unlikely married couple ever, she being such an etiolated objet d’art, eternal avatar of hip chic, sporting ultra-tailored designer ensembles in the suburbs, while he is his usual hulking, clueless self. I’ve come to the conclusion that Swinton, however strikingly effective in small roles, simply does not have it in her to sustain a full, human character. With her alien look and manner, she’s continually cast, for some mystifying reason, as “typical” American housewives, and simply does not have it in her, whether in terms of actual experience or imagination, to believably bridge the obvious gap. Her Eva is a mass of disparate effects, from Swinton’s much-seen benumbed anomie, or looking rat-bitten woebegone, or startling, antically adolescent moments, mocking Kevin’s infuriating behavior. One is perhaps led to surmise that this basic disconnect may account for the disaster that is her offspring, but, to me, it’s Swinton just being willfully eccentric once more. There is not a single moment when you really believe in or feel for her, even in the depths of the most unspeakable tragedy.

In an attempt to make Kevin something of a physical doppelganger for Eva, Eurasian actors have been cast to play him from babyhood, which only adds more unhelpful mystification. When you first see him, it’s hard not to think he was adopted. That said, little Duer is quite spookily brilliant, and Miller, at times looking the very personification of Evil Incarnate, gives it his scary all. Watching both of them may have you yearning for those good-bad old days when a simple lick of the strap might have made everything go oh-so-differently, and better.

This review was amended on Dec. 9, 2011: Kevin's little sister is named Celia and is played by Ashley Gerasimovich.