At first, Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin delicately balances on the surface of unsettling, introspective melodrama.
As the film progresses, however, it transforms, in truly breathtaking fashion, into a haunting, morbidly fascinating, blood-drenched tapestry of suburban nightmares, dancing and twisting marvelously around the fundamental human dilemma of birthing and raising a child to become a functional member of society.
Based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, the film centers around Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), the mother of Kevin (Ezra Miller), a boy who exudes misery, indifference toward others and antagonism from infancy through his early teens toward his mother. From that point on, Kevin begins developing sociopathic tendencies and sets himself on a path to wreak devastating tragedy on his small town.
Ramsay arouses twinges of anxiety and uncertainty with a balanced, nuanced progression of plot, using a nonlinear structure to slowly bring every one of the audience’s fears to fruition.
Characters weave in and out of the periphery of the central narrative, including Eva’s husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly), a constant source of positive energy but also a wellspring of delusion concerning his son, as well as several victims or relatives of victims of the havoc that Kevin will ultimately create. The major weight of the film, however, rests on the relationship between Eva and Kevin, told almost entirely from Eva’s point of view.
Kevin is typically depicted as psychotic, inhuman, even a kind of demon child that would not be out of place in a film like The Omen. There are moments, however, where the film forcefully reminds the audience he is just a boy, craving his mother’s attention and love.
It is perhaps these elements that make the film so tantalizingly disturbing — the audience is not given the outlet of dismissing the story as horror fiction because it captures authentic life.
The integral question of the film revolves around the responsibility of a parent for a child’s actions. Though Eva’s point of view dominates the film, this doesn’t hide the fact that she blames herself for Kevin’s problems, and her perspective often reveals her to be a truly irresponsible, even reprehensible mother. She seems to lack basic maternal instincts, unable to cope with Kevin’s incessant crying as a baby.
At one point, she even throws him and inadvertently breaks his arm when he is a young boy, frustrated by his determined refusal to become toilet-trained.
Nonetheless, the audience is compelled to sympathize with Eva. She seems aware of her own failings as a parent and makes a conscious effort to be a better mother, yet her son’s appalling behavior persists.
Kevin often seems to act the way he does simply out of a hatred of — or perhaps just the desire for attention from — his mother. He consistently professes his love to his father and simultaneously tries to elicit misery from his mother, a bizarre reversal of the conventional Freudian son-mother-father triangle, in which the son views the father as the main competitor for the mother’s affection.
The film poses incredibly difficult questions for its viewers. It could plausibly be the most disturbing film any parent will ever watch. It opens doorways into the greatest, most terrible nightmares of rearing a child who leaves a negative impact on the world and the possibility that the impact could be the parents’ own fault.
These questions largely go unanswered by the film, which takes a decidedly qualifying stance on the issue of responsibility. We Need to Talk About Kevin instead invokes the even more frightening possibility of prevailing uncertainty and doubt.
To realize this horrifying vision, Ramsay employs stellar use of editing and effects.
Of particular note is the sound design, a soul-shaking menagerie of auditory assaults that bastardize the mundane sounds of suburbia such as the hiss of a spinning sprinkler, the hum of a fax machine and the dull grind of a garbage disposal, transforming them into alarm bells of the macabre psyche of Kevin.
Such a dynamic mix of aural elements recalls Roman Polanski’s forays into female psychological terror such as Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, dedicating sound to the task of unsettling the audience in a manner consistent with the gut-wrenching narrative.
Also not to be overlooked is the production of the film — in particular the dazzling use of the color red to mark themes of guilt, anguish and Eva’s struggle with the implications of Kevin’s tragic actions.
Ultimately, the precisely calibrated, thoroughly unnerving performances of Swinton and Miller as Eva and Kevin, respectively, anchor the film, preventing the film’s somewhat experimental style from ever alienating the audience.
Instead, We Need to Talk About Kevin grips viewers tightly throughout, never letting them look away from the grotesquely fascinating terrors of raising a child.