Sunday, February 3, 2013

Catching Up: "We Need to Talk About Kevin"

 3.5 / 5 

You should know it up front, because it's something the film is a little coy about: Kevin has killed a lot of people.  Knowing this informs everything that comes, and "spoils" nothing -- this is a movie about something unspeakably awful and someone unspeakably evil.

We Need to Talk About Kevin suffers just a bit for the hesitancy it displays in communicating this information.  If you were to watch it again, and I'm not sure why you ever would want to, the weird, languid, spaced-out moments of the opening would make sense.

They're images that are in the thoughts of Eva Khatchadourian, Kevin's mother, who is now just a shattered shell of a woman, thinking back on the life that got her to where she is now.  It is not in any way a happy life, and if there's one thing that can definitively be said about We Need to Talk About Kevin is that it is far, far from a happy movie.  There is not a moment that this movie will make you feel better about life; I have never had children, and We Need to Talk About Kevin left me seriously questioning my own parenting skills, worrying for children I didn't have.

Tilda Swinton plays Eva as a woman who was on the verge of losing her sanity the moment she discovered her pregnancy.  She and her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly, whose naturally sunny demeanor is intentionally forced and out of place here) have very different views of their son, who in turn throws very different attitudes toward them -- to his father, he's warm and loving, to his stay-at-home mother, he's distant, cold, alien.

Eva can't pinpoint a moment it went wrong, because it was so very wrong from the start.  Now, she's left to piece through the memories on her own, unable or unwilling to leave town, her husband and daughter -- who turned out well herself -- strangely absent.  But then, everything is strange in Eva's life. We Need to Talk About Kevin moves back and forth in time, floating and meandering in the odd, disconnected way Eva herself feels.

Everything that happens in We Need to Talk About Kevin is a shock.  Why wouldn't the parents have known something was horribly wrong despite the reassurances of a pediatrician?  How is it possible Franklin is so unaware of his own son's sociopathic tendencies?  Could Eva's own emotional distance have affected the boy?  Might she have inadvertently planted the idea for his mass destruction?  And why, for God's sake, wouldn't she have done something about this long ago?

These are all the same questions Eva has, answered only by the simple facts: This happened, and nothing is going to change it.  She views it as her punishment to stay behind, to face the abuse heaped upon her by the townspeople to whom she is just as responsible as her son.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is filled with cool, even-handed cinematography (which emphasizes the color red, maybe a bit too frequently), a mannered and bleakly effective central performance by Swinton, and a slow and methodical pace, but the standout in the film is Kevin himself, played with galvanizing anger and rage by two different actors.

From six to eight, Jasper Newell plays him with cold dispassion, a hollow emptiness that refuses to be filled with anything other than hostility.  As a teenager, Ezra Miller adds fear-inducing mirth and glee to the performance -- Kevin takes delight in the pain he's causing, in the act he plays for his father and the bizarre regard he has for his mother.  This pair of actors create something rare: a character we've not seen before in the movies, a boy not like any other boy, vicious and calculating and completely without remorse.

We Need to Talk About Kevin doesn't open itself to a nature-versus-nurture debate -- Kevin is an awful, terrible human being, and his mother is right to be afraid of him.  Yet, its certainty about Kevin may be its biggest flaw: There is no examination of the crime or the perpetrator, purely observation, and Swinton's Eva is so far beyond help herself that there's no perspective.  We Need to Talk About Kevin is as dispassionate and deliberate as its central character.

But it is stunning.  There are moments that will literally take your breath away with their daring.  We Need to Talk About Kevin doesn't flinch -- even, and especially, when you wish it would.

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