It’s simultaneously mind-boggling and easy to see why director Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin was snubbed and shut out of so many potential accolades this awards season. Despite having a stellar lead performance from actress Tilda Swinton as a mother at the end of her wits, Ramsay’s film might be looked down upon as just another genre film with a high gloss. That’s sad, since it’s one of the best and most outright terrifying bits of familial horror from last year.
Swinton stars as Eva Khatchadourian, a broken down, gaunt looking mother of a monster. Her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) has been imprisoned and awaits trial for a heinous crime that he feels no remorse for. The film looks back at the events in Eva and Kevin’s lives that lead to the present, where Eva at times seems completely put off by the fact that her son ruined her life long dreams of travelling the world. Then again, Kevin (also played by Jasper Newell as a younger child) seems to be almost pure evil; cold, calculating, manipulative and uncaring. It doesn’t help that Kevin’s father (John C. Reilly) acts completely oblivious to anything potentially being wrong, and prefers to act more like a best friend to Kevin than an actual father.
Cinematic provocateur extraordinaire Ramsay returns to feature filmmaking after nearly a full decade away, but she hasn’t lost a single step. Every shot and camera angle in Kevin is immaculate and expertly crafted with a fine attention to detail and a sometimes overzealous eye for symbolic imagery. The film’s almost over-the-top eye for art direction, speaks to Ramsay’s firm grasp on the material in Lionel Shriver’s best selling novel. By not following her admittedly somewhat overrated source material to the letter, Ramsay frees herself to tell a chilling story with real emotional weight to it.
Swinton gives another strong performance in an already stacked career as Eva. A lot can be said about actors forgoing make-up and losing weight for a more “natural” appearance, but even in flashback sequences Swinton uses her looks and mannerisms to show just how taxed Eva feels before she realizes her son is crazy and he hates her. In the sequences staged in the present, she plays Eva as a shell of her former self and someone still so deeply shocked by what her son did that she’s had no time at all for any sort of personal introspection. Eva is the same person in the present as she was in the past, but now she simply acts out of instinct to fend off becoming catatonic.
Miller and Newell also do great jobs of playing a purely evil little shit devoid of feeling. Their performances do belong up there with similar performances in The Bad Seed and The Omen films. John C. Reilly also turns in a pitch perfect performance because there are few people more adept at conveying someone as oblivious as Eva’s husband. It’s a great case of hiring the perfect person for the job.
While the film probably aspires to be a higher form of art than it really is, Kevin stands out as a shining example of a horror sub-genre that sometimes manages to rub people the wrong way. People will gladly read about atrocities committed by children and teenagers, but few audiences ever seem to want to watch how these things ultimately play out. Kudos to Ramsay for not flinching when it comes to the uncomfortable nature of her pulpy material. It feels like a film that couldn’t have been made by anyone else.