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We Need to Talk About Kevin

by Philip Martin | April 6, 2012 at 2:40 a.m.

— We Need to Talk About Kevin is an unsettling horror movie that teases about the edges of the question of man’s essential nature. Are we angels shorn of wings or simply uppity beasts who imagine ourselves God’s favorites? And to what degree are we responsible for those we are supposed to love and care for? Are some people simply born bad?

“Yes,” seems to be Scottish writer-director Lynne Ramsay’s short answer to the last question, and it is tempting to dismiss her latest effort as a kind of art-house remake of Mervyn LeRoy’s cultish The Bad Seed (1956), in which 11-year-old Patty McCormack played the pigtailed psychopath (those with somewhat shorter memories might recall 1993’s regrettable The Good Son, which had Macaulay Culkin as its wee murderer). But Kevin is at worst a much more serious kind of pulp, and worth seeing if only for Tilda Swinton’s performance as a brokenhearted mother whose mind may be deteriorating as rapidly as her social circumstances.

Told in a chronologically fragmented style, with a saturated palette that features a lot of smeary reds and an economic ration of dialogue, Kevin metes out the story of a plausible yuppie family, the Khatchadourians, undone on the day their teenage son Kevin (Ezra Miller) commits an unspeakable act at his high school.

Kevin (played by Rocky Duer as a toddler and Jasper Newell as the character a few years later) has always been difficult - he was a colicky baby who cried incessantly, leading his mother, Eva (Swinton), to carry him outside into the Manhattan streets where his screams might be drowned out by a jackhammer. At one point she screams at the infant, “Before you were born, Mommy used to be happy! Now Mommy wakes up every day and wishes she were in France!”

Such are the subtle ways Ramsay cues us to Eva’s past as a successful travel writer - one whose career has been interrupted by unplanned motherhood. (There’s also a recurring scene of her at La Tomatina, a Spanish festival held near Valencia where as many as 40,000 people engage in a “food fight,” hurling overripe tomatoes at each other. Naturally, the vegetable gore echoes blood.)

As Kevin grows into a manipulative toddler, the Khatchadourians move to the suburbs to allow Kevin room to romp. He’s merciless toward his mother, cruel to his baby sister and preternaturally manipulative of his clueless father (John C. Reilly), who dismisses his son’s nihilism as typical boyish behavior and presents him with a bow and arrow.

But if Kevin is simply an evil cipher - and he is - that’s really beside Ramsay’s point. What she means to do is to explore Eva’s guilt and self-loathing - her suspicion that she not only gave birth to a monster but somehow created that monster through her reluctance to sacrifice her career and lifestyle on some domestic altar. The structure of the film is such that we meet Eva after the traumatic events, as a scorned and harassed woman living alone on the periphery of society, doing penance for the crimes of her son. She’s nearly catatonic as she scrapes the splattered red paint off the sad hovel she has been reduced to, she bears the blows of an aggrieved stranger in silence.

Whatever you think of the philosophical weight of Ramsay’s film - and I find it a little pat and light, less nuanced than David Foster Wallace’s one liner that Hobbes was simply “Rousseau in a dark mirror” - there’s a fierce integrity in Swinton’s performance.

And the images collected by Ramsay (with the help of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey) are often unsettlingly beautiful and disturbing little poems that say more individually than they do corralled together in this parable of parental dread.

As Kevin explains to his mother, “There is no point. That’s the point.”

And perhaps he’s right, though we might yet dare to hope.

We Need to Talk About Kevin 83 Cast: Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly Director: Lynne Ramsay Rating: R, for disturbing violence and behavior, some sexuality and language Running time: 112 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 36 on 04/06/2012

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