We Need to Talk About Kevin

Suspense thrillers often have one-word themes (Hitchcock and Christopher Nolan will just use that theme as the title). If Hitchcock had made We Need to Talk About Kevin, a child possession story where the child is possessed only with himself, he might have called it “Regression.” The descent of the mother figure, Eva, rocks her between memories without a sensible order. It breaks her down. By the end, she’s closer to the helplessness she starts with than to being a married mother of two kids with a hold on her life. She maneuvers this singularity of transition, barely marked by pregnancy weight and the length of her hair, with that stern litheness that Tilda Swinton brings with her everywhere. She endures her life in silence, but unlike other “I have a secret” movies, she refuses to talk about Kevin, not because no one believes her that he’s a tormentor, but because everything she would say is true and that’s even more unbearable.

She begins the film floating on a tide of Italian paraders, in a grim flurry of tomato paste and sticky fruit flesh (it’s Surrealistic but controlled, a business attire version of a Jodorowsky scene). Then the movie just releases her into her own devolution, a flurry of neon sirens and crow’s feet. Director Lynne Ramsay gets in close and never backs off (she did this in You Were Never Really Here as well). Eva marries Franklin, a curly-topped teddy bear played by one: John C. Reilly is probably the last person you’d expect to be Tilda Swinton’s husband, and then Ramsay makes you realize with nothing but long silences that you were exactly right to think that. She marries him without really being sure about it. Then they get pregnant on accident. Then they have Kevin.

Scenes with Kevin are seen from four ages, and they’re shown in a linear progression (once he’s a certain age, he will never be shown younger). There are scenes of him as a baby, as an infant (Rock Duer), a young boy (Jasper Newell), and Kevin’s final sequence, age 16, is played by Ezra Miller. Even in infancy, Kevin seems to relish tormenting his mother with endless screaming (one scene shows her worn and skeletal, stopped in the street next to a construction crew just so she can’t hear him). To Franklin, Kevin’s a little angel. One of the movie’s brilliant moves is that, unlike The Omen, we’re not sure if Kevin is evil and resents his mother consciously, or if he detects even as a baby that she didn’t really want him. Eva percolates in fear and doubt throughout the film, like the mothers in The Omen or Rosemary’s Baby but punctuated with a particular loathing, owing to how clearly she sees her son’s mistreatment of her. At the toddler stage, she’s fed up with his attitude and tells him she wishes she were in Paris instead of here with him, probably hosting an art exhibition of Tilda Swinton costume designs. Franklin can’t believe she would be so cruel, to want to be herself.

The offenses are mild at first, not even unbelievable for an average maladjusted child. Eva painstakingly covers her room with maps of her trips and Kevin destroys them, probably because he wanted to hurt her but perhaps because he wanted her to be here and now, with him. To his dad, he’s a sparkling little boy who says that he just wanted to make the room more beautiful for mommy. Ramsay graciously refrains from annoying the audience – I can imagine Franklin turning his back and Kevin smirking at his mom – and instead lets us get paranoid about something as mundane as child-raising. Kevin poops his pants, waits for her to change him, and poops again; he smiles at her, but a young child playing a game would smile too. Kevin does seem evil to us: we just don’t know how much of it is his fault. "Just because you're used to something, doesn't mean you like it," he says to her. "You're used to me." He's still in diapers.

Eva gets mad enough to break his arm and this is when the manipulation starts. Kevin blackmails her with it for a while. Franklin’s in a haze of suburban normalcy, quietly starting to resent his wife as her days alone with Kevin escalate in their teeth-gnashing prejudices. None of this is seen in a perfect continuum, with Ramsay flinging Eva headlong back into her present day as a sleepless photocopier that everyone blames for… something. Her tiny house gets blood-red paint slung at it. Much of the film concerns her tearing it down bit by bit, and obsessively washing it from her hands and fingernails. And though we have to work to find out what exactly happened, which haunts her maddening nights with sirens and screams, the washing ritual gives the whole film a sense of eerie atonement that is much more important than the final twist. Lady Macbeth was not more consumed with remorse when she cried under scalding water, “What, will these hands n’er be clean?”

Ezra Miller doesn’t make We Need to Talk About Kevin a horror film: he makes the horror film already in it come out (a little John Milton might help here: Kevin doesn't make them lose their paradise; he makes them realize it was already lost to begin with). They’ve already had another child, a girl named Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich), a normal little girl, a rose in Ramsay’s briar. And this is where, if you weren’t already, you pass over to Eva’s side: a normal child means, in reverse, that the other one might be evil all on his own. Kevin’s now at his most villainous, in being most conscious of his sadistic tendencies. Ramsay knows that implied terrors are the most grotesque, and Kevin has a tremendous scene late in the film, where a peeled lychee becomes an implied eyeball for viewers already as exhausted as Eva, who have already thought about what he might have done. “What’s the point?” she asks. “There is no point, and that’s the point,” he replies, dripping with terrible cruelty (born at a different time, Miller might have had something to contribute to the many ages of Darth Vader).

A possessed child is an easy fix, with a wooden stake or sacred knife or any number of holy MacGuffin weapons. But what if he just hates you, as much for who you are as what you made him; what if he hates you enough to act normal around everyone else? The story has such a ramifying progression to the inevitably violent end that whether Eva can pick up the pieces of her psyche and find some solace in a life of doubt becomes the only enduring question of life and death at work in a film where people get hurt and die. I said in my review of the 2006 remake of The Wicker Man that it was a feature-length nervous tick. Ramsay has made a feature-length nervous breakdown.

The passion of these performers turns it into an art exhibition. This is a role I’ve been wanting for Swinton, who’s had a comfy career being the best part of mediocre movies (the angel Gabriel in Constantine, the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia). The Academy Awards ignored her in favor of comfortable pantomimes of important people by Meryl Streep and Glenn Close. Swinton is raw and inspiring in this film. There are great old directors, the kind that thought of making movies as their holy mission, who would have looked at Swinton and seen their muse. Miller really proves himself as an intense and engrossing newcomer but he’s gone from this to being the best part of mediocre movies, which brings me back to the idea of regression.

Regression can also refer to how a variable corresponds with its cause (output, for instance, affected by time and cost). We Need to Talk About Kevin asks a big question of motherhood: can you expect an output of love from a child that you never really wanted? If the nurturing caretaker is really just your front, what if the sweet son is his, and in the end he does things you would never condone, and hates you, but really is you? Perhaps Eva’s the one who sends Kevin, way back in his earliest possible development, spiraling into violent excess, finally landing in that sly sadism that the best movie villains all seem to share. How many other villains are like that? Maybe she causes him to regress backwards past being a little boy, and back into an animal. Or maybe, Kevin was just evil all along. All horror films would benefit from thinking of these questions.

But does its exquisite ability to generate an unsettling singularity of narrative and interaction make We Need to Talk About Kevin any more fun to watch? No, I was squirming for all two hours of it. Its most brilliant move is also its most discomfiting: talking about Kevin is exactly what no one ever does in this film. Real people, it seems to say, don’t have time for family hugs and they also don’t have time to talk about their problems. They walk their empty houses in sinking dread, clinging desperately to moments of happiness before someone comes along and ruins them. Few films this century have been made with such passionate malevolence, and few horrors have been this cruelly subjecting to a single figure. Tilda Swinton makes it a masterwork of unease. But before you watch it, I would ask yourself if, like me, you have enough of that in your life already.

***

Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

Lynne Ramsay

Lynne Ramsay

Rory Stewart Kinnear

Lionel Shriver (book)

Eva Khatchadourian Tilda Swinton
Franklin Plaskett John C. Reilly
Kevin Khatchadourian Ezra Miller
Celia Khatchadourian Ashley Gerasimovich
Wanda Siobhan Fallon Hogan
Young Kevin Jasper Newell
Infant Kevin Rocky Duer

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