Review: ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’

‘A brutal, devastating, sad, tender, and beautiful film.’

Devon Ashbyby Devon Ashby

It’s unusual to discover a film that so perfectly weds an unconventional style of presentation with a relatively conventional story and subject matter to achieve such a penetrating and effortlessly engaging stylistic and emotional crescendo. Lynn Ramsay’s new film, We Need To Talk About Kevin, which opened this week in Los Angeles for a limited run, surveys the aftermath of a devastating and horrific tragedy, employing a split timeline, and a deliberately disjointed and disruptive audiovisual landscape, to heartbreakingly convey the consuming retrospective guilt of its female protagonist, Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), whose teenage son, Kevin, has committed a mass murder at his high school.

Intercut with the foggy, stumbling emotional wreckage of Eva’s life subsequent to the tragedy, the film catalogues the events leading up to her pregnancy with Kevin, and the ambivalent, detached, and adversarial relationship that develops between them as Kevin begins to grow up. Bewilderingly roped into a maternal role that she finds impossible to embrace, Eva withdraws from Kevin and grows taciturn and hostile, while Kevin’s own behavior becomes increasingly regressive, manipulative, cruel, and predatory. As Eva’s suspicions about Kevin mount, they are constantly undercut and dismissed by her own self-doubts and sense of culpability, and by the judgments of her husband, who perceives her hostility and fear as unwarranted overreactions.

The performances in Kevin are generally amazing, but Tilda Swinton, especially, is mind-blowing. The film identifies so closely with her character that anything less than a stellar delivery would have cheapened the entire movie, but even playing to such rigorous expectations, Swinton deftly surpasses them. Languorous, dreamlike editing and cinematography, and a nightmarish soundtrack alternating between foreboding layers of pulsing ambient noise and abrasive pop music underscore her wounded and compelling characterization. The supporting cast is also impressive, with John C. Reilly playing the role of Eva’s affable but clueless husband, and an assortment of unusually competent child performers portraying Kevin throughout the course of his childhood and adolescence.

A director with less will power and a weaker stomach than Ramsay, approaching such volatile subject matter, would have succumbed to the urge to oversimplify, explain, justify, and ultimately assign blame, but We Need To Talk About Kevin is bold enough to interrogate and explore the motivations of its characters without committing to just one interpretation, or coming to any definitive conclusions. Instead, the film presents a complex, partially obscured web of interpersonal relationships and events, organized around the primal question of what causes an individual to commit a senseless act of extreme violence. It’s a brutal, devastating, sad, tender, and beautiful film.