We Need To Talk About Kevin to some degree focuses on a what-if question: what if you don’t like your child? Wrapped around this rather general concept is the fragmented story of Eva (Tilda Swinton) and the film follows her over the course of eighteen traumatic years.
Her son Kevin (played by three different actors as the years progress) is a lot of trouble and she seems to be the only one who can see it. As he grows from a baby who won’t stop crying to a leering, grinning teenager (played with a bit too much malevolence by Ezra Miller), her relationship with her son becomes more and more fraught. In a parallel storyline set some years later, the film reveals what Eva’s life has become following a tragedy that her son was involved in.
We Need To Talk About Kevin is best described as a version of The Omen with more of an eye towards realism and with the supernatural elements excised. In many ways, it is a horror film, though it is a much slower paced and thought-provoking film that that genre label has come to suggest. Kevin is clearly the villain and the film has several scenes that crescendo with a kind of quiet terror, such as the unnatural calm that can be gained from a jackhammer. For the most part, the film is reserved, avoiding the histrionics typical of horror with a soundscape full of mundane though heightened sounds and oddly placed pop songs rather than screeching violins. Ultimately, it is a film about Eva and her increasing feelings of paranoia and isolation. In typical horror movie fashion, she knows something is wrong, but no one will believe her until it is too late.
However, the film is not entirely reserved, allowing some less successful scenes to slip through the cracks in its sober veneer. Images of Kevin as a glaring toddler can seem a little comical in the way that many horror films can po-facedly raise chuckles. As well as this, some scenes are slightly predictable. When Eva cheerfully presents her new collage/ wallpaper to Kevin before disappearing to answer the phone, we know what’s going to happen and can’t help but feel that she should too.
That said, the film is a powerful evocation of the inability to cope with a child you would rather strangle than cuddle. However, though they fill the trailer, these sequences are not the film’s strongest. Instead, the scenes that deal with Eva life following the tragedy are much more effective with frequently disorientating close-ups of the mess her house is in and the mess she herself is in during pill-induced stupors. Ultimately, they are about the inescapability of guilt and the cruelty of a shunning community leading to a slow though no less inexorable mental breakdown. In their way heartbreaking, these scenes work so well that when the film looks back in time, it is notably less interesting. Both Ramsay and Swinton do their best work post-tragedy, creating a powerfully palatable feeling of isolation and guilt with which it is easy to get swept away. When the film concludes by revealing the nature of the tragedy itself, it is hard not to feel slightly cheated as Eva’s life following the tragedy is left hanging. When the bloody details have been revealed, you are left wondering about the smaller details, such as “What now?”
We Need To Talk About Kevin is a very well made film with a powerful insight into its lead character. Though it betrays this insight somewhat to focus on more apparently interesting details, it remains a film that is well worth seeing. A haunting and evocative work.