After a 10-year hiatus from feature filmmaking, British provocateur Lynne Ramsay’s return to cinema is a much-welcome, dualistic character study of the highest order. Adapted from the Lionel Shriver novel of the same name, We Need To Talk About Kevin stars Tilda Swinton in a magnificent lead performance as Eva Khatchadourian, a married novelist whose son’s sinister behavior ruins her life. That synopsis may make the film sound like a horror piece, and it is – but not in the way you may be thinking.
Eva’s son Kevin never seems properly put together, not even from his conception at La Tomatina in Spain between Khatchadourian and her husband Franklin (the chameleonic John C. Reilly, Cedar Rapids). As a baby, their son never cries or smiles; as a toddler, he blatantly pretends not to understand his mother’s pleas for communication (and then, smirking, does); and as a teenager, he mocks and prods at his family while only Eva notices. Ramsay presents us with scenes in his development, getting older but none kinder, and his cruel habits – pooping his pants right after a change, refusing to roll a ball back to Eva, placing a vacuum on his sister’s head – are only the tips of the iceberg in Kevin’s haunted mind.
The actors portraying Kevin at different ages are terrifying in their exact similarities in the role, and perfectly coordinate against each other. Kevin looks something like Eva and nothing like Franklin; that is intentional, since Franklin only attempts to masquerade as a present father and caretaker. The actors – most centrally, Ezra Miller (Another Happy Day, City Island) as teenage Kevin – have jet-black hair, striking chins, and frightening black eyes. When Miller emerges as the present incarnation of the boy, there is somehow, instinctively, no doubt of his capacity for real harm. The other boys, Rock Duer as a toddler and Jasper Newell as a pre-teen, raise the bar on what children can contribute to anxiety.
For her part, Swinton expertly ages from a liberal, seductive woman in her early 30’s to a harried, frantic mother of a 16-year-old terror. Eva hardly ever steps wrong, but her marriage and motherhood put her so deeply under the gun that her skin develops a sickly pallor and her eyes sink into her face. And when she does step wrong, the scene is spectacularly sad: as Kevin acts out in front of her, Eva throws her son against a wall and breaks his arm. The actress is so convincing and specific in her abilities that our sympathies lay entirely with her very human failure. Swinton’s mass of subtle changes, from her appearance to a minor developing stutter, exhibit physically the danger she senses from Kevin’s behavior, and Ramsay matches her note-for-note in this exhibition.
Like Hitchcock before her, Ramsay’s specialties in this and previous pictures Morvern Callar and Ratcatcher, are in anticipation and suspense, not true horror. To classify We Need To Talk About Kevin is difficult, as the film experiments with interconnectivity and psychological, metaphysical principles of fear; though it does not require a label, a solid generic placement might be in the avant-garde realm of psychodrama. We see a pale blue moon passing light through a set of bedroom curtains, and we hear a sprinkler system, but how is it that we feel apprehension? Working as both director and co-screenwriter, Ramsay displays an understanding here of age-old film tropes while aesthetically inverting them for her own purposes.
An example: the beautiful but upsetting conception of Kevin at the tomato-throwing festival opens the film. Ramsay’s sharp red and pink palette fills the screen like a bloody sea, objects flying and squishing and crunching on the soundtrack as Swinton’s Eva bodysurfs a crowd of nude Spanish men. The sequence openly suggests sin, Satanism, evil, heightened post-menstrual fertility, and lust. Yet the occult nature of the scene, with human beings jumping in slow motion so as to synthesize levitation or even flight, has nary been combined with the sensuous image of a sexpot and her chubby husband – Reilly, perhaps a bit one-note as Franklin even from the start – to nauseate.
A small note to follow the example: although the work is powerfully well done and critically acclaimed, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences declined to nominate the picture for any year-end awards. Neither Swinton nor Miller, both deserving of nominations for their performances, made out any luckier than Ramsay or Rory Kinnear, her co-screenwriter. These omissions should not be considered anything less than egregious.
We Need To Talk About Kevin is an exercise in sensory manipulation and master-class acting, with Ramsay’s abilities serving as perfect complement to Tilda Swinton in another unpredictable role. To see a Lynne Ramsay film is to anxiously await the next, to see a Tilda Swinton film is to admire one, and that paradox seems just as appropriate to the nauseous lust of La Tomatina the two artists tap into together here. An exceptional, emotional film with a marvelous lead performance really cannot be considered out of the ordinary.