The controversial movie “We Need to Talk About Kevin” has been kicking around the circuit since the Cannes Film Festival in May but is only just getting its American release. This is not because it is a bad film–on the contrary, it’s bold and compelling–but because it is an extremely challenging film that enters a very dark place. Based on the novel of the same name by female author Lionel Shriver, the film looks at the mother of one of the worst children in cinema, Kevin. The mother, Eva, played by the always-engaging and expressive Tilda Swinton, spends the time soul-searching and evaluating her role in raising her son. Was she too strict? Did she not love him enough? Did her husband love him too much?
As these questions swirl through her head, the audience sees how her relationship with Kevin forms over his childhood. To put it delicately, it is not a spoiler to say that Kevin ends up committing a horrific crime for which he is ultimately put in prison. The hyper, non-chronological narrative of the film shows this early on, but obscures his abhorrent actions until the end. This non-linear timeline of the movie smartly places the most exciting and exhilarating events at its end and also does very well in establishing a nightmare-tinged chaos, but it certainly does not help the audience through the tricky narrative. It takes about 30 minutes to discern exactly where in the narrative the action takes place.
Perhaps the main reason to see “Kevin” is for Tilda Swinton’s breathtaking performance. As an actress who never disappoints, Swinton fully realizes the inner turmoil of this guilt-ridden mother. Every emotion is seen on her face as she navigates the frustration, anguish, brief joys and damaging lows of motherhood. Her tremendous ability to show the subtle line between exasperation and fear elevates this film from ordinary to extraordinary. She has been racking up nominations from the Screen Actors Guild to the Golden Globes and is primed to receive a deserved Best Actress Academy Award nomination come next week. The young Ezra Miller delivers a chilling performance, as does John C. Reilly–another welcome addition to the film.
British director Lynne Ramsay creates a truly bizarre and interesting film that is entirely her vision. She uses a vast amount of vivid imagery and incongruous set-pieces to show the detached and tortured state of the protagonists. While all very effective, it can also be startling, often difficult to follow or digest. “Kevin” not only wears its arthouse affectations on its sleeve, but it throws them at the viewer boldly and with total abandon. However, getting lost in this film is okay, even encouraged. Ramsay is working harder to create a tone than a narrative, and she succeeds in accomplishing her goals. Ultimately, the performances make this horrific and introspective story compelling to watch. “Kevin” is a must-see for fans of Swinton’s work–and everyone should be a fan of her work.