Sunday, February 5, 2012


"We Need to Talk About Kevin" has been on the radar of film critics everywhere for some time now. It's been the talk of film festivals everywhere last year, particularly after its Palme d'Or nomination. I suppose it's been around for too long, though, since it sort of missed out on the bigger awards in 2012. The Oscars, for example, ignored it completely. But, it can still boast a Golden Globe nomination for leading actress, Tilda Swinton, and three BAFTA nominations, including Outstanding British Film and Director. The greatest achievement of "We Need to Talk About Kevin", however, is that you won't be able to get it out of your head for a very long time.

This has to be the ultimate film about dysfunctional families. It's a disturbing story, told with harrowing focus, and an unflinching character study that will leave you shocked and depressed. Still here ? Good. Now let's talk a bit about the story. First off, it's based on a novel by Lionel Shriver and adapted by Lynne Ramsay and Rory Kinnear. If you've come across any kind of description, or synopsis of this film on the Internet, they pretty much place the ficticious account of a school massacre at the forefront of the plot. In fact, it goes much deeper than that. In my opinion "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is about the broken relationship between children and parents. In this case, between the son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), the mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton) and the father, Franklin (John C. Reilly).

The story sets off on two separate narrative threads, both moving forward intermitently and closely tied to each other. We meet and follow Eva as she carries on through her miserable existance in what we realise is the present. She is terrorised by her neighbours, her house and car are vandalized, she endures verbal and physical abuse from people on the street and everyone stares at her as if she were not of our planet. She gets a job at a tourism agency and in her spare time visits her son in prison. We don't get the full story from the very beginning and it's not until the very end that we get the full scope of her tragic life. As events in the present unfold, flashbacks are triggered that show us episodes from Eva's past. We learn that she once had a family and a big house. We follow the thread of flashback events from her son's conception and birth to the devastating tragedy that crippled Eva forever.

This is not just the exploration of a Columbine-type killer as you might think, and athough it's structured as a thriller of sorts, it actually imagines the origins of such a monster, and a monster we discover, even if the parents seem somewhat clueless as to where it's all heading to. Here are some facts. Even from his early years, Kevin displays cruelty and an unusual capacity to manipulate and incite. Since birth, Kevin seemed to be driven by on purpose : to drive her insane. At one point in Kevin's early years, driven to despair by boy's constant screaming, she brutally confesses to him that she'd rather be in Paris than changing his diaper. Years later, Kevin deliberately provokes her by soiling his pants after she had just changed his diaper (and he's already unusually old to still be wearing diapers, too), Eva breaks his arm by throwing him into a wall. Kevin calls this their most honest moment together. Things only worsen when the boy becomes a sociopathic teenager with hobbies such as archery and computer-virus collecting. We sense the tension rising to unbearable highs, especially after the birth of a little sister. Kevin undergoes a relentless campaign of punishing Eva, except now he can also do it through his little sister. Everything spirals down to the high school massacre, the boiling point of the growing hatred and cruelty. At the end, when Eva asks Kevin why he did what he did, all he can say is "I used to think I knew. Now I'm not so sure."

You might notice that I have not mentioned the father in all this. That's because he's simply not there. Kevin pretends to be the holiest of angels when dad's around because he knows Eva will look crazy when she tries to approach her husband about his behavior and that's exactly how things go down. Franklin believes all is right with Kevin and Eva should work some more on her mothering skills, so Eva simply avoids confronting the issue in the future. This is probably her biggest mistake. While opinions vary regarding the distribution of blame between the mother and the father, the fundamental problem is that neither one took action. The film's title hints at the problem. They simply never talked about Kevin. The father was blissfuly ignorant and the mother tiptoed around the issue, until the whole thing went over the edge. They really needed to talk about Kevin.

Tilda Swinton channels Eva's angst perfectly and it's truly a shame that the Academy Awards failed to nominate her for this powerful role, which I truly believe is the best in her career. Ezra Miller, as 16-year-old Kevin is also frigthningly effective in all his displays of sociopathic beahvior and equal praises are deserved by the two other young actors who plays Kevin. The more thankless but necessary role goes to John C. Reilly who isn't given much to do here, as he plays the clueless clown.

The movie is hard to watch. Needless to say it's not what you would choose for a relaxing afternoon. But it's a something you can't turn your eyes away from. "We Need to Talk About Kevin" immerses us in the life of a woman and we explore her experiences, at all times seeing them through her eyes, which makes it impossible not to empathize with her. Despite her flaws and mistakes we are at all times aware of her torment which makes the time we spend with her character truly heartbreaking. It's an experience you won't forget.

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