Monday, January 2, 2012

The Big Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin

Aside from Tilda Swinton's performance, meh...

This review previously appeared in "ICON" and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)


Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin places its main character (Tilda Swinton) in a shattered suburban world, where she mopes in an indifferent daze, unsure how she got there and if she can ever leave. The movie is a showcase for Swinton, who in delivering an assured, intense performance provides the movie's lone reason for being.

When we first meet Swinton's character, Eva, she emerges from a rough night to find her house covered in red paint. The car has also been hit, though she can see enough through the crimson windshield to go for a ride. Through it all, Eva reacts like the paperboy threw the newspaper in the rose bushes again.

We learn the story of Eva's numbness, which starts with the birth of her son, Kevin. Eva, who has little enthusiasm for motherhood, holds the baby like a sack of flour. Kevin cries incessantly. Eva's solution is to stand next to a construction site, where even the jack hammering can't drown out the yelps. As Kevin exits his toddler years, he's a loathsome, manipulative terror. He portrays himself as an enthusiastic, happy tyke to Franklin (John C. Reilly), Kevin's dad and Eva's husband, while driving Eva nuts. Kevin ruins her map-lined room, the only enclave in a gigantic, soulless suburban fortress that's her own. When confronted by Franklin, the boy says he only wanted to make the room special for mom. Though clearly beyond potty training, Kevin favors diapers, controlling his bowel movements solely to spite Eva. Since Kevin faces no consequences and belongs to disagreeing parents—one who is never around; the other who resents his presence—the stage is set for an act of teenage rage that will devastate a community and destroy Eva.

Ramsay and co-writer Rory Stewart Kinnear, working from Lionel Shriver's novel, fashion a strong dramatic base by capturing the despair involved in raising a young child. (Women worldwide will feel compelled to double-check their birth control pills.) But in establishing Kevin's malignant behavior and Eva's current misery, Ramsay and Kinnear take shortcuts. Reilly's sole purpose here is to provide the "Kevin isn't a bad kid" counterweight. It's a lazy tactic that allows the writers to glance over Franklin and Eva's marital woes and how Kevin becomes a nihilist with great hair. Kevin's evilness gets reduced to shallow logic: Since he plays one parent against the other, he's destined to do horrible things. Really? Did Ramsay and Kinnear ever see The Parent Trap?

Franklin's presence in the storyline, aside from wasting Reilly's considerable talents as America's favorite sad sack, leads to a thematically jumbled film. Throughout the toggling between the present and the past, we get glimpses of Kevin's terrible act. Because Ramsay can't move firmly in one direction, the film exists in this unsatisfying realm where you kind of get a somber character study and you sort of get an updated version of Gaslight.

That's not the only way Ramsay mishandles the material. Eva is the town enemy, prone to being slapped or verbally maligned for Kevin's actions. Considering the losses Eva has suffered, and if the wronged still honor Hamurabi's Code, why does that happen? And if every time I went to Subway I risked getting kicked in the balls, I'd at least consider moving to the next county. A scene where trick-or-treaters terrify a candy-less Eva plays like something from a Roger Corman cheapie. Franklin and Eva's home comes from a long line of suburban palaces whose sole purpose in movies is to shout, "Love can't exist here!" Eva's current job is so flagrantly drab—badly dressed, barely washed employees, travel posters not sticking to the wall—that you're not sure if Ramsay is being sardonic or obvious. Either way, it's an ill fit.

We Need to Talk About Kevin does have Swinton, who helps illuminate the one positive aspect of Eva's tragedy: she's become a mom for the first time. Ezra Miller is gripping as the 15-year-old Kevin, turning charisma and intelligence into absolutely chilling characteristics. Those strong performances, and a potentially absorbing story, get lost in Ramsay's rush to elicit effect with little regard for cause. [R]

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