We Need To Talk About Kevin is a radical film for long enough to suggest that the whole film will be radical. After a glimpse of Eva’s (Tilda Swinton) life before motherhood that depicts her either as a loose-spirit and aims for irony (she is covered in blood-red tomato juice, with an emphasis on “blood”) or as a Christly one and aims for sympathy (her character is ultimately a scapegoat, the ultimate victim, and forever marked by the blood of others), depending on how you approach the film.
Either way, the next act, a free association that leaps through time through sound association and graphic matches, is absolutely enthralling. The sound of a basketball, lowering one’s face into the water, and the color red give us glimpses of Eva’s past, in which she had two kids while also conveying what her life is like now. She is maligned by the community, even slapped by a woman who passes by her, and everyone’s dream interview. But it only takes a couple shots of her face being replaced with the face of Kevin (Ezra Miller) and the film’s title for us to know that he did something terrible and she is taking the blame for it. Ramsay ensures that we can just barely see what is going on with Eva while trying to burden us with the same thing she carries, and it comes not through dialogue, but through editing and engrossing use of sound that create an impressionistic montage that could hold its own against any like-minded films. Holding everything together is costuming, most particularly hair, which differentiates the present and also displays the long span of memories that still haunt Eva. We learn more in this relatively short sequence about character and story than the film offers in the rest of its nearly two hour runtime, and while the rest of the film is somewhat unconcerned with really tackling heavy thematic topics, what resonates is contained mostly in these beautiful, ugly moments.
When Kevin does start to tell its story, the films spell does not break, thanks largely to the strong performances of Swinton and Miller (as well as Jasper Newell and Rock Duer, who play younger incarnations of Kevin). Even as a baby, Kevin was a devil who hated his mother whenever he could but skillfully manipulated his father into believing he was an ordinary boy. We see the extent of Kevin’s devilishness, but we are never forced to consider whether Eva’s poor parenting is a cause, and although the film is almost certainly through her eyes, nothing about Ramsay’s direction indicates subjectivity. It’s as if Kevin was born evil, and Eva is a tragic hero who has to deal with him. Thanks to great performances, a knockout soundtrack and score (by Cliff Martinez), and moody atmosphere, it works even as a straightforward narrative.
Despite the formal shortcomings, though, the tragedy is provocative purely in good ways—that is, it never opts for exploitation (the film is disturbing but almost never graphic), and forces reflection in part because of the essentially predictable and repetitious narrative. What should the mother of a Dylan Klebold or an Eric Harris do? What can such a mother do? Surely she should not stop loving her son? Eva doesn’t, so we endure with her every forced attempt at reconciliation, every atrocity Kevin commits, and we quickly hate him for it. If not for an unexpectedly and redemptive end, this film would be pure nihilism, but a smart move to steer away from questions of gun violence allows the humanist message to shine through. Likewise, a seemingly comedic throwaway conversation about going to hell parallels the opening’s religious allegory and suggests yet another hopeful theme to the end. After 105 minutes of unanswered questions and a terrible child, Ramsay avoids the easy answers and strives instead for the more important subjects. What’s done is done, as one character says, but instead of “why?” she asks “what now?”
Asking the right question at the end does not justify ignoring the obvious one all along—we see so much of Eva and Kevin but we can pin everything on Kevin from a very early stage—but it does make for a surprising and smart spin on subject matter that often falls into clichéd or offensive territory. We Need To Talk About Kevin may not deliver on all the promises of its impressionistic first act, but it does make for a thrilling ride through one person’s hell on earth.