It took two viewings for me to appreciate We Need to Talk About Kevin, the neo-surrealist drama helmed by Lynne Ramsay. Based on a book of the same name, the film, scribed by the director alongside Rory Kinnear, explores the theme of “nature versus nurture” through the eyes of Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), a disenchanted mother coping with the aftermath of a school massacre her son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), orchestrated.
Unlike Pedro Almodóvar’s use of reds to symbolize passion, Ramsay uses them to embody rage and guilt. From the opening scene — a dream sequence set in the midst of Spain’s annual La Tomatina celebration — the color represents regret Eva, a once-intrepid traveler, harbors after giving birth. Furthermore, either as a prank or an act of retaliation, the neighbors vandalize her porch with blood-hued paint; Eva’s a selfish woman and doesn’t make the effort to sympathize with her son’s victims — rather doing her best to escape them — and this constant harassment stops her from doing so.
The movie never shoves opinions down your throat. Personally, rather than being given everything in advance, I enjoy passing my own judgments. We Need to Talk About Kevin leaves more questions than answers. Considering Mrs. Khatchadourian’s role as the narrator, were aspects of her story exaggerated? Did Kevin’s father’s (played by John C. Reilly) soft touch and Eva’s culpability influence Kevin’s evilness? Was he born a monster? Could it have been a chemical imbalance or mental disorder? Despite subtle references, these questions are never concretely answered. What we know for certain is that Kevin’s a nihilist kid who’s hungry for attention. The filmmakers leave the rest up for debate.
As expected, Swinton delivers a tour-de-force performance. But while her efforts have been acknowledged by associations such as the Golden Globes, BAFTA Awards, and the European Film Awards, the Academy has snubbed the actress once more. Nonetheless, she excels by playing to her character’s distinct reliability — both as a woman forced to give up on her dreams, and a mother who, handed the short end of the child-rearing stick, desperately tries not to break — remaining on neutral ground with her audience.
Also exceptional are the Kevins. In addition to Miller, there’s Jasper Newell and Rock Duer, the two child-actors who play the character’s younger incarnates. They deserve recognition for beating the stereotype that young performers suck. That notwithstanding, Ezra dominates the screen, and with productions like “Another Happy Day” and “City Island” under his belt, he’s become well-rehearsed in independent cinema.
Painfully miscast, however, is Reilly. Although some of the blame is on the screenplay, which fails to develop Mr. Khatchadourian as anything more than a blubbering fool, the actor just didn’t convince me, and I’ve always considered him underrated in drama. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, he’s out of his element. He doesn’t hurt the film as much as he could have, but, at certain points, his performance introduces an awkward brand of comedy that doesn’t fit into this dark-as-tar drama.
Fundamentally, though, Ramsay, with We Need to Talk About Kevin, both serves up hard-hitting social commentary, and warns us that, sometimes, condoms are the right call.