We Need to Talk About Kevin

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a waking nightmare of a movie that seems to exist somewhere in the overlapping space between reality, memory and paranoia. It tells the story of a boy who grows up to be a psychopath, and makes that painful notion even more horrifying by telling it from the perspective of his mother. I'll be straight with you: I have a son (who's 16 months old as of the writing of this review), and I spent a large portion of the film alternating between thanking my lucky stars that he's such a genuinely sweet kid and recoiling in terror at the film's shudder-inducing “what if?” scenario.

Co-writer/director Lynne Ramsay (adapting Lionel Shriver's novel of the same name) employs an unusual and devastatingly effective storytelling structure. Early on, she reveals that teenager Kevin Khatchadourian (Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) is in prison, but doesn't reveal why. We see that Kevin's mother Eva (Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive) is an emotionally distraught person whose life seems to be challenging: she works a thankless low-paying job, lives in a battered little shack of a house and occasionally is forced to deal with angry strangers verbally or physically abusing her (again, we aren't told why). Meanwhile, Ramsay starts employing lengthy flashbacks to Eva's early days, which reveal that she was married to a doting husband named Franklin (John C. Reilly, Magnolia) and enjoying a much more comfortable living situation. Increasingly, these flashbacks overtake the film, slowly revealing the story of Kevin's life from conception to the present.

This non-linear approach creates a relentless sense of tension: what did Kevin do, and what made him do it? The answer – or at least a vague impression of the answer – becomes unnervingly clear early on, transforming the mystery-driven tension into pure dread. Additionally, there are complicated “nature vs. nurture” questions to deal with: does Kevin turn out the way he does because of the way his mother treated him, or was he destined to be bad news no matter what?

From the beginning, the relationship between Eva and Kevin gets off on the wrong foot. The pregnancy is unplanned, and it puts her exciting, professionally satisfying life as a travel writer on hold. She feels some measure of resentfulness towards him for the duration of her pregnancy, and despite her best efforts to be a good mother, she holds onto that feeling after he's born. To be fair, Kevin is an exceedingly difficult child. As a baby, he screams constantly. As a toddler, he demonstrates an extraordinary amount of misbehavior and sulky hostility. Bewilderingly, he's near-angelic whenever Franklin is around, which leads Franklin to believe that Eva may be exaggerating about her difficulties with Kevin. When he becomes a teenager, it becomes clear that he's well on his way to turning into an awful human being: he's cruel to his little sister Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich), obsessed with violence, venomously ugly when speaking to Eva and masterful at presenting an entirely different version of himself to Franklin.

How much of what we're seeing can we actually trust? I suspect that most of what we're shown in flashback is not an objective, fully-formed look at a life, but a mother's skewed memories of the countless moments that led to something terrible. Look at the intense close-ups offered during many of these scenes; the way the camera zooms in on some very specific detail: the food dribbling out of Kevin's mouth as he takes a bite of something, the disappointed look on Franklin's face, Kevin's cruel smirk after saying something particularly hurtful. The scenes often have a fragmented quality: they tend to start a little late and end a little early, anchored by these striking, often grotesque bits of imagery. There's also something dreamlike about the film's tone, particularly in the way it employs catchy '50s and '60s tunes (stuff kicking around in Eva's subconscious?) in a manner that frequently seems disconnected from the images they accompany.

If you take the film at face value, the characters might seem curiously one-dimensional. Franklin is always aloof and clueless; never intuiting his wife's feelings and consistently missing things that ought to be obvious. Kevin is so persistently monstrous that you might occasionally wonder if you're watching the latest remake of The Omen. Young Celia – Eva and Franklin's second child – is never less than angelic. Meanwhile, Eva is an endlessly complex figure, forced to grapple with a tangled web of family relationships and difficult feelings. Much of this story is unfolding within the confines of her own mind, and while the basic details are probably accurate, almost everything else is colored by the flood of painful emotions she's coping with. Think of a person you dislike. When you think of them, how often does your mind gravitate towards the specific things that made you dislike them? It's an extraordinarily unique storytelling device, but also a difficult one: the film plunges you deep into Eva's horror story of a life and never lets you come up for air.

Swinton's performance is one of many tremendous turns from the actress; a perfectly-pitched portrait of a woman who begins to regret nearly every major choice she has made in life but lacks the ability to actually do anything about it. Day after day, memory after memory, her face tells a different version of the same story: “What have I done?” Kevin is played by three different actors as he ages, but we usually see him in the form of Ezra Miller, who delivers one bone-chillingly effective scene after another. It's such an effectively soulless piece of work – until one brief, tragic moment when it isn't. This is a great film. It may be a long time before I work up the nerve to see it again.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 112 minutes
Release Year: 2011