Paedophobic cinema has become a fairly classic staple of the horror genre. The Omen, The Exorcist and The Shining have all helped cultivate, or perhaps manipulate, our very potent fear of witnessing something so innocent display traces of evil. To some extent We Need to Talk About Kevin is a horror movie. First and foremost however, it is an observational drama that looks at the psyche of a mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton), who finds it impossible to love her son.
The novel by Lionel Shriver upon which the film is based told the story of Eva in an epistolary format, with her writing letters about the problems she is having with Kevin, their first-born child. The film takes a more fractured, less structured approach to this grim tale of abuse, distress, manipulation and violence.
We know from the start of the film a climactic event has occurred in relation to Eva’s son. She is shunned and tormented by other adults in her neighbourhood, and has paint splashed on her car and house. This makes up one half of the film, and is cut between scenes of the other half — the development of Kevin from baby to toddler to teenager, and Eva’s reaction to his adolescence.
Kevin as a child is unsettling. He torments his mother by refusing to be potty trained, and covers up for her when he breaks his arm after she throws him to the floor. Kevin as a teenager (a brilliant Ezra Miller) is terrifying. He disturbs his mother greatly with his strange behaviour. In one deliberately troubling scene, Eva walks in on him whilst he is masturbating; but Kevin isn’t embarrassed. He continues to jerk off whilst looking at his mother straight in the eye. In other scene, after telling him they are to be going out to dinner later in the evening, Eva finds a scarily animalistic Kevin in the kitchen gnawing on a whole chicken in a deliberate attempt to upset her and ruin the evening.
When Eva tries to talk about Kevin with her husband (John C. Reilly), he acts as if she is paranoid. This is all part of her son’s plan – to isolate his mother and punish her. But for what? It isn’t clear, and this is one of many unanswered questions the movie throws up. However, this heightens the messy realism of the picture. Real life isn’t always simple. It sometimes does contain problems and circumstances that are not easily explained away. It could just be that Eva has been dealt a bad hand when it came to having kids.
The power the film gathers as it hums steadily towards its now famous climax is of epic proportions. This is a picture of great, searing impact. Much of this is down to Tilda Swinton’s masterful performance. Some critics are calling this the performance of her career. They are not wrong.
Lynne Ramsay is not to be forgotten, however. Although she has only directed a few films (it’s been years since her last feature, Morvern Callar), We Need to Talk About Kevin reminds us what visceral and unforgiving energy her films carry, and how the complexities of a very touchy subject can become more complex and worrying the deeper the examination goes.
If this film is a commercial success, and the buzz around its release suggests that it very well could be, I hope it will help end the myth that audiences have stopped caring about good, well-told adult stories made by exceptional filmmakers. This year has seen The King’s Speech and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. win big at the box office, and I hope We Need to Talk About Kevin does the same. The British public are not stupid. We need heavy, meaty films that we can get our teeth into and have a good long discussion about. And you won’t run out of things to say about this film.
We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011), directed by Lynne Ramsay, is distributed by Artificial Eye and Paramount Pictures, certificate 15.