We Need to Talk About Kevin

Dir. Lynne Ramsey. USA, UK. 2011.

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Hideous child...

Alas, they never do talk about Kevin. Not much. And they don't act in time, if there was something they could do. Mom (Tilda Swinton) knows from early on that he's a bad seed, but, between moments of anger and outrage, seems dominated by either blind affection or a misguided conviction, possibly born of liberal guilt, that all sociopathic teenagers need is love. As for dad Franklin (John C. Reilly, a bit too bland and good-natured as in Polanski's recent Carnage), he just thinks it's a stage the boy's going through. So Kevin, on the cusp of his sixteenth birthday, commits an atrocity at home and another at his high school. This is a rigorous film, evoking a sense of determined evil so strong it's almost palpable. Believability is another matter. The weaknesses may derive from the source novel, which appears to lack the accurate information about such kids and such acts provided in Gus Van Sant's Elephant, and instead delivers a boy so evil and weird from birth that the film becomes art house titillation, a high-toned horror movie, unlike talented newcomer Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene, also a kind of posh horror movie but one containing much social and psychological evidence, something replaced with surrealism here. We Need to Talk About Kevin is loaded with shocks and buildups to them, one every ten minutes or so. It's rather a surprise coming from the Scottish auteur Lynne Ramsey, whose first two features, Ratcatcher and Morvern Caller, are marked by local color and a restrained, delicate eye. This film, her first film of any kind in nine years and her first away from native soil, is set in a somewhat generalized, abstract America. It also seems loaded with a misplaced ambition those somehow more personal but less striking earlier films lacked.

Not that Kevin isn't powerful, well acted by Swinton and strangely beautiful, its editing (by Herzog vet Joe Bini) particularly in the first half an intentionally disquieting mashup of chronology, its camerawork (by Seamus McGarvey) striking, and its young actors also chillingly effective -- Kevin as a tot, Rocky Duer; as a 6- to 8-year-old, Jasper Newell; as a malignant teen, Ezra Miller. The baby is colicky from birth. As a toddler, he refuses to speak at all, then utters nothing but denials or taunts and can't seem to be toilet-trained, till mom loses her temper and uses brute force, causing damage to the boy and getting results at last as a result. As a teen, Kevin becomes adept with successively more sophisticated and powerful bow and arrow sets his dad gives him, the most professional set for Christmas. The little sister, Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich) -- oddly, Eva has dared to produce another child -- gets a hamster as her Yuletide gift. The cute little rodent quickly winds up in the garbage disposal. Can an you guess who put it there? The film alternatively chronicles Eva's struggle to cope after her son's unspeakable acts (never actually shown) and her own pariah status that results, on the one hand, and, on the other, goes back to a past instances of his shocking behavior like stepping stones leading up to the unseen climax. With an unnerving irony, at every stage Kevin has a beautiful face, illustrating a subconscious sense we may have that ugliness can lie behind beautiful facades. When Kevin morphs into Ezra Miller that beauty becomes knowing and nasty. Though Miller's performance is well meant and shows true commitment, it seems a bit overdone because the character is so extreme. He is a bold defiant Hannival Lector of teen monsters, nothing like the mild, socially uneasy boys in Eleophant.

Leslie Felperin of Variety states something that is logical even if it is not true: that the film has a "core conundrum: Is Kevin just a bad seed, or did Eva's strained, unhappy first attempt at parenting turn him into a monster?" Obviously there is non-communication between Eva (Swinton) and Franklin. But they are not fully drawn. Aart from a couple of blowups on the wall and their moving away from NYC to a huge McMansion in the suburbs, there is little to show that Franklin is a successful photographer. As for Eva's being a renowned publisher turned writer famous for her travel books, when a poster about one of them appears it seems like a strange and unexpected joke. A chance remark about wishing she were in France shows she's openly not an enthsiastic mother, but we don't get to see her working at anything else. And as Felperin notes, the film is very "dialogue-light." And evidently Ramsey has, as he says, excised reams of explanatory matter from the novel by Lionel Shriver. This may be like a dream of the book, rather than an adaptation of it. Eva's strained attempt at parenting is boldly but schematically sketched in, and the relative outlook of the two parents, given the lack of dialogue, remains vague. What is fully developed is a sense that this child was malignant from day one. So where is the conundrum? It gets a bit lost. And that undercuts the complexity of what is meant to be a very disturbing film.

Kudos to Ramsey for making a stylish, chilling movie. But it seems to dwindle in comparison to Gus Fan Sant's Elephant, which, being loosely but sensitively based on a study of the Colombine massacre, delivers a rich sense of the actual atrocity and a convincing set of psychological details about the two disturbed boys.

At the end of Kevin, Eva asks her son, in prison, just one question: Tell me why you did it. And he answers, "I used to think I knew. Now I'm not so sure." That's all we get. And it's not enough.

We Need to Talk About Kevin was presented in competition at Cannes in May 2011. Screened for this review at MK2 Hautfeuille, Paris, October 17, 2011. UK release was October 21. It will go into US theatrical release December 9 (limited) and January 27, 2012.

Chris Knipp

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Chris Knipp

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