We Need To Talk About Kevin
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 26th February 2012
It’s a difficult enough task bringing a critically acclaimed, bestselling novel to the screen, but quite something else when the book in question is Lionel Shriver’s harrowing first-person narrative of a mother’s response to her teenage son’s role in a high school massacre.
As someone who rates the novel among her all-time top 10, I have been tracking the pre-production of this film adaptation for several years, so it is a relief to report director Lynne Ramsay has produced a superb, disturbing and utterly compelling film.
Don’t take the plot headline at face value. Unlike Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (which recreated a Columbine-like high school shooting from the protagonist’s eye-view), this story belongs to the mother. Eva Khatchadourian is brilliantly portrayed by cinema’s resident ice queen, Tilda Swinton, as the successful travel writer looks back over her life pre-child-bearing, then raising the recalcitrant Kevin, and latterly dealing with the aftermath of his efforts to get her attention.
Without casting judgement in any direction, the film tells little while showing everything, in myriad subtly placed details and particularly on the faces of its characters. Eva manages to look guilty in every frame, whether warily pregnant, or wearily dealing with a perpetually screaming baby, as it becomes apparent that Kevin is no compliant, loving child. Carrying the burden of her particular experience of motherhood, she wears paint stains on her hands like Lady Macbeth. It’s a crime that Swinton was not Oscar-nominated for her performance.
Juxtaposed with scenes of carefree, pre-parental irresponsibility, Swinton perfectly evokes Eva’s despair as her son rebukes all motherly advances, while her oblivious husband, Franklin (an odd casting choice in John C Reilly, who nonetheless acquits himself well), thinks he’s building the perfect nuclear (in more than one sense) family.
As the teenage Kevin, Ezra Miller is a standout, his relationship with Swinton convincingly disconcerting and powerful as he grows from a manipulative, belligerent, contrary little horror of a child. Like the book, however, the film doesn’t offer easy answers (it is missing the point to suggest Kevin is simply “born bad” like The Omen‘s Damien), and is instead a masterful retelling of a complex and challenging story. With relentless music and harsh sound design, the tense narrative creates a film that may sit with you for days after viewing.