Monday 31 December 2012

Movie Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

A tense and disturbing family drama, We Need To Talk About Kevin delves into the back story of a teenager gone bad. Tilda Swinton is captivating as the mother left to wallow in the shattered debris of what used to be her domestic life.

Constructed non-linearly by director Lynne Ramsey, We Need To Talk About Kevin follows two basic time lines. The first occurs in the present, with Eva Khatchadourian (Swinton) living alone and depressed in a small ramshackle house by the rail tracks and trying to get on with life. Her house is targeted with paint bombs, and her neighbours greet her with angry stares, angry words and sometimes outright violence. Eva secures a job beneath her abilities at a dingy strip-mall travel agency, where her co-workers shun her. She visits her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) in prison, but the visits are silent.

The second timeline occurs in flashback, with Eva reminiscing about her family life. Husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) is never less than loving, but from the moment their child Kevin is born, the bond between mother and son is dysfunctional. As an infant Kevin never stops crying while in the company of Eva. As a toddler he is late to start talking and even later in getting toilet trained. But the worst of his anger and anti-social misbehaviour always appears to be targeted at his mother. As a teenager, Kevin is particularly sullen with Eva, while his father encourages him to excel at archery, the one sport that seems to make him happy. Finally Kevin's behaviour starts to turn menacingly violent, with his young sister Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich) the first to be vulnerable to his increasingly harmful actions.

Presenting a scenario in answer to the beseeching question of what goes on in the family lives of middle-class kids who prove to be really damaged, We Need To Talk About Kevin is unrelenting in portraying a mother's quiet nightmare. Kevin is the teenager who may well be perceived as well-adjusted and typical by everyone else, but in Eva's recollection, something was wrong from the beginning, with persistent signs of some undiagnosed damage, ill-will towards her, and anger boiling beneath the surface. Kevin is just a normal kid as far as his father and everyone else is concerned, but Eva's experience dances on the seam between blaming herself for lacking a mother's instinct and being convinced that her child is evil.

The one weakness in the script by Ramsey and Roy Stewart Kinnear, based on the Lionel Shriver book of  the same name, is the almost incessant portrayal of Kevin as a bad seed in all of Eva's memories. There is no attempt to balance whatever good moments there may have been between mother and child: it's a uniformly grim experience. The one joyful moment recollected by Eva involves Kevin suddenly feeling close to her when she reads a Robin Hood adventure to him. It emerges that Kevin was actually switched on by the subject matter of archery, rather than any affection towards his mother.

Tilda Swinton dominates the movie, and her portrayal of Eva is a stunning portrait of a woman victimized first by her son and then by society, and yet she can never shake the lingering doubts that the tragedy unleashed by Kevin is somehow her fault. In each of her memories interacting with Kevin, Swinton is perfect in planting those tiny yet precise seeds of imperfection in how a mother handled her son, from the way she held him, to the games she played with him, and her methods of discipline. Swinton silently conveys the eternal question that will dominate the rest of Eva's life: if she had only done everything just a little bit differently, would the outcome still have been the same.

Ezra Miller as the teenaged Kevin is chillingly calculating and manipulative, an adolescent already occupying a different world compared to his mother, emotionally dominant, physically brooding, and plotting seemingly several steps ahead to make her life a misery.

In demanding a conversation about the most disastrous of family unit failures We Need To Talk About Kevin does not arrive at any tidy answers, but simply a myriad of doubts, suspicions and what ifs, affirmation that when the problem is complex, any simple explanations are simply wrong.

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