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Movie review: 'We Need to Talk About Kevin'

In 'We Need to Talk About Kevin,' Tilda Swinton gives a powerful performance as a mother trying to cope with a never-ending nightmare of existence because of her son.

December 09, 2011|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Ezra Miller and Tilda Swinton as son and mother in "We Need to Talk About Kevin."
Ezra Miller and Tilda Swinton as son and mother in "We Need to Talk About… (Nicole Rivelli / Oscilloscope…)

"We Need to Talk About Kevin" is about a nightmare on your street, not Elm Street. It's a domestic horror story that literally gets to us where we live, a disturbing tale told with uncompromising emotionality and great skill by filmmaker Lynne Ramsay.

Working from Lionel Shriver's celebrated novel, Ramsay and her equally unflinching star, the mesmerizing Tilda Swinton, present a troubling, challenging examination of what Ramsay, speaking at Cannes, called "one of the last taboo subjects: You're meant to instantly love your baby from the moment he's born, but what if you don't?" And what if that baby grows into someone terrifying?

If this were a just world, Ramsay's name would be more celebrated than it is. Her extraordinary debut, 1999's "Ratcatcher," won her the British Academy of Film and Television Arts prize for best newcomer in British film, but because of five frustrating years spent in a fruitless attempt to film "The Lovely Bones," "Kevin" is her first feature in nearly a decade.

On one level, "Kevin" tells a straightforward story of the relationship between mother Eva (Swinton) and her frighteningly manipulative son, Kevin, played as a toddler by Rocky Duer, as a boy by Jasper Newell and as a teenager by the unnerving Ezra Miller.

But because Ramsay is an extraordinary evoker of visual mood, someone who seems to literally think and feel in images, "Kevin" functions on an expressionistic as well as a literal level, blending the real and the surreal as if there were no difference between them.

Working with the gifted cinematographer Seamus McGarvey ("The Hours," "Atonement"), Ramsay is incapable of creating ordinary images. Whether it's the somehow disturbing visual of billowing white curtains that opens the film, later shots of Halloween revelers that have a spooky Diane Arbus feel or almost anything in between, "Kevin's" ability to assemble textured visuals is its most potent attraction.

Co-writing the script with Rory Stewart Kinnear, the director has completely done away with the novel's epistolary style. After a brief opening prologue, "Kevin" initially presents its story in shards of jagged memory from different times in a distraught woman's life as she obsessively relives the past, lurching from incident to incident, trying to find a way to psychologically survive.

That prologue presents a very different Eva. Before marriage, before children, she was a joyous adventurer, someone we see giving herself up to the ecstasy of abandon at Spain's La Tomatina tomato-throwing festival.

The Eva we meet after the flashback to La Tomatina is a very different woman. She's distraught, not ecstatic, a catatonic fugitive in her own life, someone who finds her house and car splattered by hateful red paint that intentionally mirrors and mocks the joyous red of her early days.

The change began when Eva married the preternaturally cheerful Franklin (an on-target John C. Reilly) and, possibly against her will, agreed to have children. Not only is she unhappy being pregnant, but after the birth, we see her standing next to a jackhammer on a Manhattan street, grateful for a way to drown out the noise of her unhappy baby.

If Eva did not want to be a mother, her child feels like someone who did not ask to be born. We watch in increasing disbelief as Kevin, as spiteful and adversarial as he is clever and calculating, engages in nihilistic combat with his mother as he goes from bad to badder to worst.

Though the exact details of where Kevin ends up and how he gets there are not revealed at once, it is not hard to guess the destination early on. What holds us in the film, besides Ramsay's skill, is Swinton's fearless, ferocious performance as someone not only trying to come to terms with an endless nightmare but also agonizing over what part she might have had in its creation. The Oscar-winning Swinton's gifts are, of course, no secret, but this is a special performance, even for her.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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