Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
January 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Rosemary's baby is all grown up

Wicked comedic overtones upend the horror at the heart of 'We Need to Talk About Kevin'

We Need to Talk About Kevin
Oscilloscope Pictures
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Screenplay: Lynne Ramsay and Rory Kinnear, based on the novel by Lionel Shriver
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly, Jasper Newell, Rock Duer and Alex Manette
Rated R / 1 hour, 52 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

My reaction to We Need to Talk About Kevin is based largely on the element of surprise. Having missed both of Lynne Ramsay's previous films - Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar - I had no frame of reference. All I'd heard were adjectives like "bleak" and "harrowing."

The reality was quite a bit different. In fact, we're going to need visual aides for this. The poster on top is the movie I thought I was getting - an intimate character drama, soft and heartbreaking, quietly devastating. The poster on bottom (the one in retro '70s chic with the picture of a bedeviled fetus) is the movie I got - a loony, madhouse riot.

In fact, this is one of the looniest movies I've seen in years, a pitch-black comedy about a mother with no maternal instincts dealing with her psychopathic son. Despite the violent killing spree that helps frame the film, this is not a dreary tragedy or cautionary tale. It is a brutally funny narcissistic fantasy. Its dreamlike effect takes hold from the start, as we slowly push in on a fluttering bedroom curtain bathed in the soft white glow of moonlight - an opening moment bookended by the equally surreal reveal shot that shows us, finally, what horror is behind that curtain.

The entire film is filtered through the warped perspective of Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), a woman who seemingly never wanted to become a mother in the first place, and with the bad luck to be stuck with evil incarnate as her firstborn. We see Kevin grow from a difficult, uncooperative infant, to a difficult, uncooperative toddler, to a difficult, uncooperative little kid, and finally into a smarmy, black-hearted teenager (Ezra Miller, the new go-to guy for smarmy teenage characters in indie movies). All the while, his very reason for existence seems to be to torture his poor mother.

At least that's how we see it - because that's how she sees it. Kevin's victims are left virtually without comment - it is all about Eva. Her guilt, her inner torment, her suffering.

To a certain extent, the joke seems to be about the anxieties of parenting itself - of being wholly responsible for another human being, of doing it wrong, of doing irreparable damage. Kevin is the manifestation of every paranoid fear and nightmare, his actions an ironic justification of those fears.

Of course only Eva sees this. To everyone else he's perfectly normal. He's only psychotic when Mommy's around. Dad (John C. Reilly) is oblivious, constantly making excuses for the kid, constantly telling his wife that she just misunderstands Kevin, that's all.

One thing I've heard said about We Need to Talk About Kevin (and to some extent I know this is just over-reactive, quote-whore nonsense) is something along the lines of, "It will make you think twice about ever having children!" Which strikes me as a strange reaction to the film - I mean, who could possibly take this seriously enough to take any real caution or terror from it? Purely literal-minded people, I suppose. But to me, that would be like developing a fear of flying after watching Airplane!, or being scared of businessmen after watching American Psycho. Even if this is a warning for prospective parents, it's the wink-wink-nudge-nudge kind.

I'm baffled that anyone could interpret the film as a straight drama. Take something as simple as color choices - in this case, the persistent use of deep, bright reds, from the gush of the tomatoes at an El Tomatino festival that represents Eva's happiest memory, to the paint splattered all over her run-down house, to jellies and wines and of course blood.

Such a self-conscious, over-the-top stylistic choice is a pretty clear signifier of the film's attitude, and its intentions. The movie takes the Evil Child subgenre and takes a sledgehammer to it - or, if you will, a bow and arrow - milking the absurdity for all its worth. The degree to which I found the film disturbing was in large part because of its sense of humor. But just as many failed to see the embedded satire and wit of Black Swan, I fear the comedic bite of We Need to Talk About Kevin will be lost on many.

As I confessed up front, my initial reaction to the film was due in part to the fact that it caught me off guard. I don't know how I'll react to it the second time around. The film's tonality is already uneven; there are scenes seemingly meant to elicit sympathy for Eva but result only in contempt; and if, in Kevin's jailhouse monologue, Ramsay is going for some sort of commentary on the state of current media and entertainment, it doesn't work.

Then again, Ramsay's cinematic poetry is virtuoso-like (the way she marries images, music and sound reminiscent of the likes of Gus Van Sant and Terrence Malick), which may ultimately be all that matters. The film's sound design in particular is a brilliant composition (especially paired with Jonny Greenwood's unnerving score) - and an instrumental piece of the tapestry of memories, feelings and impressions that Ramsay so expertly puts together. I don't know what my final takeaway from We Need to Talk About Kevin will be, but without a doubt it does make an impression.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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