Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is either the year’s funniest horror movie or darkest comedy, or maybe both. The distinction is probably unnecessary though, since few genres are as similar as comedy and horror, each with a tradition of subversiveness and an insatiable desire to inspire spontaneous and illogical physical reactions (terror and laughter). That subversive streak is on full view in We Need to Talk About Kevin, as Ramsay takes direct aim at that most hallowed of American sacred cows: Motherhood.
There is a widely-held belief that giving birth automatically induces maternal feelings in every woman (although the number of people in therapy or in need of therapy might poke some holes in that theory), but that certainly didn’t happen to Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton). She is a hip, urban bohemian until an unexpectedly fertile encounter with her boyfriend (John C. Reilly) leads inexorably to parenthood, marriage and a sterile existence in a suburban McMansion. She goes on to experience one of the ultimate parental nightmares: Her child grows-up to be a monster—a remorseless, sociopathic, mass-murderer. Ramsay flips back-and-forth in time between the present, where Eva tries to piece together some semblance of normalcy living amidst the friends and family of Kevin’s victims, and a past that she mercilessly relives in search of the answer to the big question: Why does Kevin kill? Is Eva unable to bond with her son because there is something deeply wrong with him almost since birth or is he irrevocably damaged by having a mother who never wanted him? Or maybe it comes from growing up in a cultural void? Unlike other evil-kid movies (The Bad Seed, The Omen and Children of the Corn) where the source of the child’s malevolence is unambiguously demonic, Ramsay offers no easy answers.
Anyone who has seen any of Ramsay’s previous works (Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar) knows that she has an amazing ability to convey her characters’ inner emotions through purely visual means. With bold widescreen compositions and a highly evocative use of the color red, Ramsay compels us to experience the world through Eva’s eyes, even though she is someone that not all viewers will find sympathetic.
Ramsay is fortunate to have a fearless actress like Academy Award winner Tilda Swinton (I Am Love, Michael Clayton) to play Eva. Swinton gives a raw, intense performance that allows us to feel every nuance of Eva’s hope, discomfort and fear. She is matched beautifully by Ezra Miller (City Island) as her sardonic, chillingly ruthless son.
From the mesmerizing opening images of Eva swimming in a sea of red to the film’s quiet finale, We Need to Talk About Kevin keeps astonishing us even though the story holds few surprises. There is never much doubt about what will happen, but Ramsay’s brilliant direction, Swinton’s amazing performance and the unsettling enigmas at the heart of this fascinating movie keep setting off sparks in your brain, even long after the film has ended.