Having the Conversation, by Scott Nye
We Need to Talk About Kevin proves that most horror films are merely affecting their genre. Lynne Ramsay’s latest film, her first in nearly ten years, doesn’t have any scares, people in distress, or immediate suspense, but it is terrifying. She crafts an environment at once free-flowing (dipping in and out of moments over a sixteen-year period) and totally suffocating. We’re never given long to sit in a particular scene, but the totality of their emotional tenor is at once emotionally overbearing and aesthetically exhilarating. We Need to Talk About Kevin is in every sense of the word a masterpiece.
Tilda Swinton stars as Eva, who we follow chronologically in what could most easily be termed “the present day,” as she reflects, or is thrown back into, or is running away from, the past, of which we see bits and pieces. She and her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly), have a terror of a son named, you guessed it, Kevin (played by Ezra Miller in his teen years, Jasper Newell at ages 6-8, and a rather remarkable Rock Duer as a toddler). Any other film would center the conflict around the fact that only Eva knows that Kevin is an evil little bastard, and nobody else believes her, until it reaches a breaking point and suddenly his nature becomes terribly apparent. But any other film would be a lesser film. Ramsay instead is out to explore the nature of motherhood when you hate your child (and by extent, motherhood itself), and the age-old theme of a parent’s responsibility for their child’s actions.
Soon after giving birth, we see Eva lying in bed, exhausted in a way that goes beyond the mere pains of childbirth. She seems psychologically, even spiritually spent, as though a part of her soul had been removed. Over the course of his formative years, we see Eva act in all the ways a mother is supposed to, but one look in her eyes tells us she’s just not in this. She takes a wailing baby Kevin to a construction site to surround herself with some, any, other sound. She smiles happily and tells him that “Mommy used to be happy, but now she wakes up every day and wishes she was in France!” Before long, Kevin seems almost fundamentally evil, but did Eva’s neglect and lack of true love cause that in him? Or do some kids just come out wrong? Ramsay tackles the nature-versus-nurture argument, and while she suitably comes up empty-handed, her exploration of it is so deft, sure, and probing that any answer would seem a cop-out.
She confronts that question with the horror it would naturally produce if one probes as deeply as she. On the podcast a few weeks back, David, Tyler, and I talked about how one way of understanding horror is facing something unknown and not-quite-right head on, and that’s this film through and through. Ramsay heightens that emotion by having Kevin played, at all ages, a little bit exaggerated. In his younger years, he’s more forceful, more determined than a child would be (and there’s something not quite right in his eyes), and as a teenager he’s definitely more suave than anyone I knew in high school. But it all serves to undermine Eva’s authority, to give her a suitable foe, and to externalize her nightmare.
Especially considering it’s light on dialogue and free from voiceover, this is a very interior film, and the horror feels like an honest expression of Eva’s subconscious. Swinton, as she always does, proves a perfect channel for her director, putting all of her anxiety right out in front. Eva is only granted small moments of peace, but the way Swinton modulates her outlook, from hopeful exasperation to a resigned understanding that this is just how her life’s going to be and a thousand degrees in between is quite stunning. It’s performance both as the formation of a character and, honestly, as a piece of art that expresses something essential about the human condition.
Could I slag the film for some minor issues? I suppose, but what would be the point? To prop up my own reputation for perception? It certainly wouldn’t be an accurate representation of how very, very good this film is, how thoroughly I loved it, and how it’s continued to haunt me through the week since I’ve seen it. There are small details that I’d hate to give away, but which on their own communicate unending sorrow – this attention to detail would seem the first to go in a film structured as a nightmare, but they embolden every horrible emotion the film imbues. It’s difficult to identify the towering works of cinema as they are unleashed, but I have no problem calling We Need to Talk About Kevin one such film.
We Need to Talk About Kevin will be released through Oscilloscope in one theater each in New York (The Angelika) and Los Angeles (Cinefamily) on Friday, December 9th. Those in other cities should stay tuned to Oscilloscope’s website for expansion details.