We Need To Talk About Kevin isn’t entertainment. It is an experience. The film evokes an almost suffocating atmosphere, leaving your chest tight, your breathing short and your mental faculties wrung out over the course of 112 minutes.
The story revolves around Eva (Tilda Swinton) and her tormented relationship with her first-born child Kevin, steadily exacerbated by his increasing malevolence towards her. The film, pendulums between two chronlogical points, the birth of Kevin, and the aftermath of a hugely traumatic event, later revealed as a Columbine-style killing spree by Kevin’s own hand. From the start, this is not a comfortable movie. Our senses are toyed with through the irregular and disjointed editing, jump-cutting between time periods and scenes of joy, grief, despair, and on occasion, what can only be described as domestic horror. The overlaying of diegetic sound from one scene with that of a conflicting scene serves to increase our unease, a prime example being the still and tense tableau of mother and incarcerated son facing off in a prison visiting room, whilst on the soundtrack, Eva’s voice, dripping with motherly affection attempts to coerce the toddler to say ‘mama’.
From the unsettling opening scenes, we are forced to deal with a number of questions about the motherhood, family and the age-old dilemma of nature versus nurture. The aggressive relationship between Eva and Kevin is shrouded with complexity. Was Kevin born evil, or is he reacting to Eva’s obvious reluctance as a parent; at one point cooing to her infant son, “Mommy was happy before Kevin came along.” The game of tit-for-tat becomes more and more extreme as Kevin ages, and fully develops his cunning. He pushes Eva to the limits of her endurance, and when she snaps, holds her guilt in submission as a constant and ever-present sword of Damocles. The scenes of the aftermath see Eva struggling with those very questions on her own. Once a successful travel writer and used to palatial living, she now inhabits a squalid, run-down house, comforted night after night by a bottle of wine and a jar of pills. She is the constant target of community hate and revenge for Kevin’s actions, and when faced with such hate, she can’t help but feel responsible. However, when juxtaposed with the earlier scenes, we question her role in the actions of Kevin, and if we side with her, it makes the later half of the film that much more upsetting.
This is a hugely powerful film. You can barely read a review without seeing the phrase ‘tour de force’, but overused as it may be, it is exactly right. The film is tightly scripted, but even so, it’s not the words that matter. Most of the emotion comes not from explosive confrontations, or physical violence, but instead measured looks and subtle hints of the terror that is about to descend. Everything hinges on the acting, and more squarely so with Swinton’s performance, which is just amazing to say the least. Her inner turmoil and confusion in the early stages of the film reside within her eyes and strained expressions, whilst later, she is a potent depiction of a tortured soul. She is ably supported by John C Reilly as her slightly overbearing husband, who gently stokes Eva’s secret regret regarding settled, familial life. As Kevin becomes a teenager, Ezra Miller steps in as Eva’s nemesis. Pale, with piercing eyes, he makes a cold and calculating enemy. His measured words are always dangerously provocative, understood only by Eva as he goads her, daring her to challenge him.
Dark, and torturous, this is a brave film. Well worth a watch for some of the greatest performances and nerve-shredding storytelling you’ll see this year. Just don’t expect to leave the cinema unmoved.