We Need to Talk About Kevin

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
  We Need to Talk About Kevin
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Eva (Tilda Swinton) had a promising career as a travel writer until an unplanned pregnancy puts her professional life on hold. Still, she happily accepts the radical changes to her new life as a mother but the baby, Kevin, seems to have a different agenda. The boy grows up challenging his mother and manipulating his father, Franklin (John C. Reilly), until Eva decides that “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”

Robin:
Since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, there have been a number of films dealing with the subject of teen violence and mass murder. Films like Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” and “Beautiful Boy” explore the impact of the horrific incidences that all stem from that terrible day in Columbine in 1999. In “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” we see the build up of sinister character over young Kevin’s lifetime that you know will end in tragedy.

Tilda Swinton has received nominations and awards from voting organizations around the globe. But Swinton, and the film, was completely ignored by the Academy in all categories, including Best Actress. This is a shame as the actress gives one of her best performances to date. Performances by the eldest Kevin (Ezra Miller) and youngest (Rock Duer) Kevin are both terrific – and creepy. John C. Reilly, as Kevin’s clueless dad, is relegated to walking around in denial about his Damien-like son, spouting lines like “He’s just being a boy!” after Kevin offs his little sister’s pet hamster.

Director and co-writer (with Rory Kinnear, adapting the Lionel Shriver novel) Lynne Ramsey garners strong, gut-wrenching perfs from Swinton and Miller. The imagery of Eva’s past life as a successful travel writer in more idyllic times to the bottom falling out of her life when Kevin is born is stunning to look at. The pain and suffering of trying to care for a baby that never stops crying – ever – and constantly defying her at every stage of growing up is palpable. This lets us feel the build up of tension that culminates in teenage Kevin’s killing spree. The aftermath of the tragedy is dominated by Swinton as she tries to cope with the horror and the loss while she is ostracized by her neighbors and former friends.

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” is not an easy film. Ramsey and her cast and crew pull no punches and let us have it with both barrels (I love allegory). But, seriously, this is not an easy story to tell and the filmmakers do it well. I give it a B.

Laura:
Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton, "Michael Clayton," "I Am Love") loves her life as a globe trotting travel writer based out of New York City, but things change dramatically when she has her first child.  Her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly, "Cedar Rapids," "Terri") is presented a completely different face from his son, finding the fault instead with his wife in "We Need to Talk About Kevin."

Cowriter (with Rory Kinnear)/director Lynne Ramsay ("Morvern Caller") has been drawn to macabre tales involving the young (she was originally attached to "The Lovely Bones" before it was mauled by Peter Jackson), but in adapting Lionel Shriver's novel, she leans a little too far into the self consciously arty and the horror aspects of the tale at the expense of the psychological.  Still, a terrific performance from Tilda Swinton and the three beautifully cast actors tagged to play Kevin at various ages (the amazing Rock Duer, Jasper Newell and "City Island's Ezra Miller) combined with Kubrickian compositions and great sound design mostly overcome the film's faults.

If one is unfamiliar with the book or with Spain's La Tomatina Festival, the film's opening sequence could prove a bit disorienting.  After we see curtains billowing inward to the sound of a lawn sprinkler outside, Ramsay cuts to Eva crowd surfing over revelers gleefully smashing tomatoes, a scene which resembles carnage in an overhead shot.  This is just the beginning of Ramsay's red onslaught which becomes almost laughably overdone (no grocery store stocks an entire wall of tomato soup cans).  The tomato bacchanalia represents Eva's life before Kevin, but you'd be hard pressed to realize what she had before from this and a brief montage of a long-haired Eva running about the city with the seriously miscast John C. Reilly ("Cedar Rapids," "Terri") as Franklin.  (I'm not even going to get into the weirdness of casting Tilda Swinton as an *Armenian* as she's so good and the character's cultural heritage is jettisoned in the adaptation).

Ramsay continues to cross cut between present, where Eva deals with red paint vandalism and personal attacks on the street, and the recent past of flashing police lights hinting at large scale tragedy. The film begins a fairly linear approach with the birth of Kevin (his conception is announceded by the flashing red digits of a bedside clock announcing the witching hour).  Kevin's nativity is marked first by the howls of his mother's face distorted fun-house mirror style in an operating room lamp, then by the rictus of a smile she stiffly greets him with.  The child cries non-stop and Eva is an unnatural mother, holding him out stiffly repeating 'Hey! Hey! Hey!' in lieu of knowing what to coo.  In my favorite moment in the film, she stops his carriage next to men jack hammering a city street to drown out his incessant screaming.

Young Rock Duer is downright eerie as the first, toddler rendition of Kevin who manipulates by refusing to speak. Ramsay's great directing kids, coaxing out the evil glint in this boy's eye.  Jasper Newell isn't quite as natural (he looks too posed), but plays one of the film's crucial climaxes well. Ezra Miller is a cold and taunting and, like his forerunner, switches on and off when dad's in the room.  Swinton encompasses the awkwardness with which Eva handles motherhood - just the way she says 'Kev' announces forced intimacy - yet she gracefully falls in when Eva's second child, Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich, TV's 'Louie'), arrives, a true mother/daughter rapport versus the wary, overly intellectualized way she communes with her son.  But fine actor that he is, John C. Reilly lacks the macho sex appeal and strong character that would explain Eva's capitulation to domesticity.

Ramsay plays up horror conventions from the shock reveal of an eye patch to her overuse of red.  If we haven't picked up on the implications of a dozen broken eggs, she cuts to stretchers bearing teens before cutting back to Eva consuming her guilt.  Do we really need creepy clown paintings in a pediatrician's office?  Then there is the unfortunate use of "Muleskinner Blues" and "Ham and Eggs" which give off a self conscious hipster vibe (better - 'What Child Is This/Greensleeves' over a supermarket loudspeaker, “Mother’s Last Word To Her Son”).  Why not rely on the talents of Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood  ("There Will Be Blood") who uses his theremin-like Ondes Martenot to relay that something is amiss just when all seems well?  Paul Davies' ("The American") sound design is extremely effective as well, from the use of nerve-jarring construction equipment to the unmistakable sound of an empty house.

Readers have debated the nurture vs. nature aspect of Kevin with Shriver's book, which I personally found to weigh heavily on the Bad Seed side of the argument.  Ramsay's adaptation leaves no doubt.

B+
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