Parents who struggle with raising their kids will often make comments like "Man, if only each kid came with a manual..." But would a manual be of any use if your kid was born with the heart and soul of a young Michael Myers? We Need to Talk About Kevin is a brutal, cold-hearted motion picture, and that's all because of the brutal and cold-hearted kid it has for a title character. This isn't a story about a nice boy who became a monster after puberty, or who grew traumatized because he was raised poorly. The film has no qualms in letting you know that this is a child who was evil and sociopathic from the moment he was conceived, despite being raised by loving, well-to-do parents. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a horrifying film, and it's also a potent drama, thanks to the fact that most of the running time is dedicated to examining how a mother deals with the shock and consequences of her son's unfathomable actions.
Eva (Tilda Swinton) lives alone in a small, crappy house that seems to be falling apart and was recently vandalized with red paint. People on the street give Eva hateful looks. We quickly get the superficial version of the explanation for all this - flashbacks start showing that Eva's son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), did something terrible at his high school that caused the deaths and injuries of dozens of students. We find out that Eva used to live in a luxurious, amazing house with her family, which (aside from Kevin) also includes her husband and a younger daughter. The film continues to intercut between scenes in the present (in which Eva is dealing with her new miserable life) and scenes in the past (in which we get to see Kevin from the moment he was born and we watch him grow up). But Kevin is really a secondary character here, because the film is all about Eva's struggle: in the flashbacks, she deals with what may be the hardest-to-raise and most vicious kid you've ever seen on a film, and in the present, she deals with the horrible burden that has resulted from the cards she's been dealt.
As far as visuals are concerned, this movie is particularly creative and intense, especially when it aims to provide visual symbols of Eva's martyrdom, from the nightmarish dream sequence in the beginning that feels like something taken out of a biblical passage, to the frequent shots of Eva cleaning the red paint off her house (as a way of representing her attempts at emotionally wiping away the catastrophic situation that Kevin caused), to an eerie moment that shows an image of the actual conception of Kevin as a fetus, during which the accompanying score practically screams that something terrible is brewing. Kevin's mean-spiritedness turns out to be relentless: as a young kid, he knowingly does everything possible to make his mother's life difficult (which includes purposely shitting himself right after he's been cleaned up). Once he's a grown teenager, his treachery is even more blood-curdling - his reaction to getting caught masturbating is the exact opposite of what a regular teenager would do. The film makes the particularly fascinating choice to have Eva and Kevin sport similar hairstyles and often even wear similar white shirts, to the point that there are times that we'll see a character from behind and won't immediately be sure of who it is. This is supremely effective for two reasons. First, because the predominant emotional thrust of the film comes from Eva being accused and feeling guilty due to actions that were committed by her son - actions that may or may not be morally attributtable to Eva. Second, because once the final act reveals the extent of what Kevin did and did not do, one gets the feeling that Kevin's mental and emotional problems can't be reduced to simply saying that he "hated" his mother - there's something else lurking here. This makes the moral and emotional complications in the film even more layered.
One could say that We Need to Talk About Kevin is divided into three parts: (1) first, a quick overview of what Kevin did, whilst setting up Eva's struggle in the aftermath of what he did, (2) then, flashbacks that focus largely on Kevin's childhood and process of growing up, and (3) finally, the full-on revelation of everything Kevin did, complete with Eva's interactions with her now imprisoned son. It's my opinion that the first part and the third part are both absolutely fantastic, whereas the middle part is only very good. The film spends a little more time than necessary on pushing (as hard as it can) the message that 8-year-old Kevin is an evil bastard, with long shots of the kid with sinister looks on his face, to the point that you wouldn't be faulted for getting confused and feeling like you're watching The Omen all over again. The film goes overboard in showing as many examples as it can pack into the running time of little Kevin's malevolence, which eventually leads to a sense of predictability and lack of surprise whenever he's about to do something. When Kevin's little sister receives (as a Christmas present) the cutest, furriest live pet you've ever seen, we already know what the poor animal's fate is going to be (and this isn't a spoiler - the film's handling of it makes it obvious as hell right off the bat). The other issue is that, because the movie spends longer than it should on Kevin in the 6-8 age range, it takes a long time before actor Ezra Miller (who plays him as a teenager) really gets the opportunity to shine. And as much as the film often benefits greatly from its choice to look at all of this through the filter of how the mother deals with the situation, it does deprive us of the opportunity of seeing anything through Kevin's eyes. You see, the flashback scenes are still all from Eva's perspective - we see all the things that Eva saw Kevin do. We never get to see Kevin at school, interacting with other classmates or talking to other people. The reason why this is a bit of an issue is that it would've certainly been interesting to look at this from more than one perspective, and also, it would've given Miller the chance to put up a performance worthy of a best supporting actor nomination. Prior to watching We Need to Talk About Kevin, I was well aware that this guy was more than prepared for a role like this, considering how he handled the cold and harsh environment that permeated Afterschool, and how he then proved his range when he was such a comedic highlight in City Island. Sadly, I think that, for Miller to have been able to get that opportunity here, the film should've allowed us to see at least a few things from his character's vantage point. But at least it's good to know that this film will probably keep propelling him into great projects.
Of course, the reason why it's not that big of a problem that we don't get to see much through Kevin's eyes is that, thanks to the magnificent Tilda Swinton, seeing things through Eva's eyes here proves both spellbinding and horrific. Swinton pulls no punches in portraying the crude, harsh reality of the suffering she is going through and the impact that is being exerted on her by the guilt that other characters keep tossing in her direction. Consider a scene in which she finally gets a moment's bliss, a mere trifle of happiness, and then it's instantly shattered as quickly as a slap in the face. Swinton is an animal of an actress, and I mean that in the best possible sense - she's as fierce and fearless as it gets. This searing performance is on par with the equally audacious work she did in the likes of Female Perversions, The War Zone and Julia, and is further evidence of how in-her-element she is when she's placed in the context of relentlessly dark material. I certainly hope that her work in this film doesn't turn out to be as criminally underseen as the ones she gave in those three other films. It's one of the most stunning female performances of the year, and it's thanks in large part to her work that the first and last acts of the film are both so masterful - it's impossible to look away from Eva's face as she reacts to the gradual revelation of Kevin's deeds.
It just occurred to me that, at this point, my highest-rated films for the year all fall into the depressing/disturbing arena (and if they've got any humor in them, it's all undeniably dark). For the record, it's not that I have an absolute bias in favor of films like that and that I reject anything uplifting; in fact, I'm crossing my fingers that something uplifting will emerge during the next few weeks, so that my top 10 list doesn't end up being the most somber I've made in years. Still, there's something interesting to be said about our fascination with films that portray events that are horrific or hard to watch - We Need to Talk About Kevin makes some significant points about this issue. There's a scene in the film in which it's basically suggested that audiences enjoy watching someone as fucked-up as Kevin wreak havoc, because they take pleasure in seeing something that's so out-of-this-world, whereas "if Kevin was just a kid who got an A in Geometry, you guys would be switching your channels." While I'd hardly classify it as enjoyment, there's no doubt that stories like this one can have a skin-crawling, devastating impact, and that they should be commended highly when they accomplish it as well as We Need to Talk About Kevin does. My sense of fascination towards a film like this comes from something that I think is better than the superficial fun we often have at the movies - it comes from the effect exerted by a work of art that manages to pierce my soul and horrify me so much. It seems that 2011 was the year for films that entered this supremely dark realm by looking at school murders through the perspective of the parents of the perpetrator, first with the awfully-titled Beautiful Boy and now with We Need to Talk About Kevin. The former film was decent, but sputtered towards the end, and thus, its impact fell just a little short. Not so with We Need to Talk About Kevin, a powerhouse of drama and horror, and a film I won't soon forget.