We review We Need to Talk About Kevin – A potent Problem Child tale

4 min read

If you’ve ever worried that you’re too self-absorbed to make a good parent, then We Need to Talk About Kevin is the ultimate affirmation of your fears. This drama thriller is a mighty fine form of birth control, but it’s also a mighty fine film as a whole… if you’re someone who can stomach cinema that’s domestic-focused and realistic; consistently dark and ominous.

Based on Lionel Shriver’s prize-winning novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin centres on Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), a frazzled woman who we meet living in a frequently vandalized, ramshackle house, and subsisting on a diet of scrambled eggs, red wine and handfuls of prescription drugs. You quickly discover – via some erratic, and later more coherent, flashbacks – why accomplished travel writer Eva is now a withdrawn, bankrupt pariah. And it’s all to do with her home life. You see, Eva’s teenage son Kevin has committed a horrible act and Eva evidently holds herself responsible: she birthed and raised this monster, aware all along of the wilful, manipulative tendencies that her husband (John C. Reilly) played down.

I’m sure this synopsis makes We Need to Talk about Kevin sound relentlessly grim and unwatchable, but the film actually isn’t. Once you get over the “arty” first 5 to 10 minutes, filled with long patches of silence, disorientating, decades-jumping editing and plenty of red paint and tomato pulp, the film emerges as a fascinating look at parenthood. Given the audacity of Kevin’s behaviour, on occasion the film can even be considered darkly comic.

We Need to Talk About Kevin wouldn’t be as potent if it didn’t have strong performances at its core. Fortunately the film really delivers in this department. Physically, Ezra Miller is completely convincing as Swinton’s teenage son, and he plays Kevin as a sneering, coiled snake who could strike with chilling efficiency at any moment. Rocky Duer and Jasper Newell, meanwhile, also do fine work as toddler and pre-pubescent versions of Kevin, both of whom are disturbingly intense and insightful beyond their years – which suits the fact that they’re hatching a brattish scheme to become the all-consuming centre of Eva’s life.

Although an Oscar nomination eluded her earlier this month, Tilda Swinton has been showered with praise for her work in We Need to Talk About Kevin, and it’s unquestionably a fantastic performance. Swinton’s screen persona is typically that of a slightly creepy, slightly unhinged eccentric. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, the actress harnesses all that character discomfort and channels it into Eva’s ambivalent attitude towards motherhood. Eva makes some horrible mistakes in regards to raising Kevin – the worst is the guilt-tripping and lack of discipline – but given the circumstances, she’s still an understandable, accessible character.

In the aftermath of Kevin’s horrific act, Eva is miserable and ashamed – masochistically taking every insult and physical assault that comes her way via the community. However, at the same time Eva obviously has great inner strength, dragging herself through day after day of abuse when it would probably have been much easier to just swallow a fistful of sleeping pills, or abandon her son forever.

There are a few gripes to be made about We Need to Talk About Kevin. As already mentioned, it takes the episodic film a while to settle narratively. It also would have probably helped if the movie was a little less intimately focused. The audience never finds out how socially integrated Kevin is. Do his classmates and teachers recognise him as “different” or is his masquerade utterly convincing in public? In the end though, flaws aside, We Need to Talk About Kevin is still powerful and memorable. It just doesn’t make for a fluffy, fun evening at the movies.

Last Updated: January 31, 2012

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