We Need to Talk About Kevin

Shut up! - An exercise in cheap sensationalism saved by Tilda Swinton

Mar 15, 2012 at 12:00 am

We Need to Talk About Kevin


Want to end the debate over contraception? Force audiences to sit through We Need to Talk About Kevin, the new film by Scottish director Lynn Ramsey (Morvern Callar). Saturated in a collage of reds, sporting inappropriately placed pop tunes, and reveling in its hollow nihilistic subject matter, this art-house horror flick is relentlessly pretentious, unashamedly self-conscious and, ultimately, meaningless.

Does nature trump nurture? What does it mean to be the good parent of a very bad child? What if we're not nearly as good a parent as we imagine we are? We Need to Talk About Kevin has little patience or humanity to confront any of those questions. Instead, it's the The Good Son (or Bad Seed) meets Don't Look Now, a kaleidoscopic exercise in cheap sensationalism that mistakes abstraction for profundity.

But then there's Tilda Swinton. Who not only appears in nearly every shot of the film, but almost single-handedly manages to infuse Ramsey's culturally smug indictment of American parenting with humanity and insight. That Swinton was overlooked by the Oscars is a travesty. As Meryl Streep proved, the quality of the performance says nothing about the film it's in.

Through a fractured narrative, where the past and present bleed into one another, We Need to Talk About Kevin introduces us to Eva (Swinton), a travel writer who is living as a pariah in a small U.S. community. She was married to a wealthy and cheery husband (John C. Reilly), and had a pair of attractive children. But right from birth, something wasn't quite right with her eldest, Kevin. As an infant he doesn't stop screaming. As a toddler he demonstrates only scorn for dear old mum. As an 8-year-old, he gleefully torments Eva with his refusal to be potty-trained. Through every stage of development, Kevin reveals a profound hostility, even resentment, toward his mother — but is always careful to hide his malice from dear old dad. For Eva's part, she's not exactly the most nurturing of moms. Her parenting can best be described as detached and haphazard — but she's clearly trying. It all comes to a violent head, of course, with teenage Kevin (Ezra Miller) committing a much-telegraphed high school massacre.

Swinton is mesmerizing, wrestling with the guilt and horror of what her son is, while never shirking from her responsibilities as his mother. Her cold exterior masks incredible vulnerability as her haunted, searching eyes remain ever-vigilant for some insight as to why Kevin is the monster he is, or she can connect with him. For a moment, I started to suspect that Ramsey was trying to manipulate us into seeing everything from Eva's point of view, casting Swinton as an unreliable narrator who has distorted memory of who her son actually was.

And Swinton's deceptively passive performance almost convinces me this intriguing idea could be true. Unfortunately, there's little else in the film to support the conclusion. Ramsey is far from subtle and presents Kevin as unrelentingly and sneeringly rotten. His actions are so single-mindedly vicious that, from a psychological perspective, they don't even come close to making sense. And, as written, Eva is equally opaque. We never understand how her being a travel writer matters within the context of the film, or how the opening shot of her being hoisted, Christ-like, by a crowd of tomato-soaked men at Buñol's El Tomatino festival connects to anything that follows (unless it's a cheap metaphor for the blood that will eventually follow).

Stylized to the point of absurdity, We Need to Talk About Kevin is little more than a blank, tarted-up cartoon, where Ramsey's hyperbolic efforts seem orchestrated to camouflage the fact that she has nothing to say. If there's an aesthetically kindred spirit — but thematic opposite — to Miranda July's equally insufferable The Future, this is it.