Harrowing 'Kevin': Art-House Turned Horror
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
One of the most relentlessly and purposefully harrowing movies of the year, "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is a full-on horror picture in the guise of an art film. Director Lynne Ramsay's new film, the long-overdue follow-up to her remarkably distinctive and unsettling "Morvern Callar" (2002), is a very tough sit at times, although, like one of its most distinctive antecedents, the original "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," it terrorizes by suggesting more than it shows. All the while it delivers a thoroughly nasty raspberry into the face of our cultural exaltation of the state of motherhood.
The movie begins with some typically Ramsay-esque strong-but-enigmatic images (this is only her third feature, but her visual sense is sufficiently developed that she's got a recognizable stylistic signature): sheer white curtains blowing in an open terrace doorway followed by a bizarre overhead shot of an orgiastic crowd reveling in a pool of scarlet (this soon reveals itself as some exotic tomato-throwing celebration in a foreign land), followed by a drab house whose façade sports a fresh crest of blood red framing its doorway -- real Ten Commandments stuff, if you will. And in this house dwells Eva (Tilda Swinton), sunken-eyed and long-faced, trying, for reasons she seems not to fully understand, to rebuild a life that's got perhaps less than nothing left to it.
Like "Morvern Callar," this film attaches itself like a barnacle to primal female experience. But where "Morvern Callar" was about a trauma that led to a kind of liberation, "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is about a trauma that leads to more trauma and eventually a kind of existential prison. That trauma is the birth of Eva's first child, son Kevin, conceived with her future husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) while the couple are still adventuring (Eva is apparently a "legendary explorer" and travel writer), and Kevin is trouble from the start.
The scenes in which Kevin's screaming literally competes with jackhammering to find out which can wear Eva out faster are ones which, I'm glad I can only imagine, every mother can find empathy with. The movie's recut/reassembled nonlinear jigsaw structure paces angel-faced teenage Kevin's menace against little-boy Kevin's inarticulate intransigence and precocious sullenness. The movie conceives the child as a pure malevolent force, and this creates an interesting quandary for the filmmakers: The whole thing is frequently in danger of coming off like "The Omen" as directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. I know, some of you out there might be protesting, "You say that like it's a bad thing," and I feel you. I just don't think the film wants to do that. Every now and then it does. And it's OK, really.
Still, the movie is, in a sense, a radical critique of the notion that parenthood fills a void in the life of a woman. In this story, Kevin is the void, constantly withholding from his mom while sucking up to his clueless dad, and then turning around and letting the hapless mother know that he knows exactly what he's doing. It's in the scenes between teen Kevin (played with diabolical but laid-back conviction by Ezra Miller, whose androgynous facial features rather upsettingly put one in mind of Olivia Thirlby as a boy), an increasingly put-upon Eva, and utterly clueless Franklin. Reilly's performance is particularly clever: The character starts off as a stock amiable dunce but develops into something more insidiously impotent. Swinton is thoroughly amazing as a woman who gives up her "life" for her child and learns to start hating herself when she discovers she doesn't love the child the way she loved what she's given up, or that she may not love him at all. And then a baby sister enters the picture.
As Warren Zevon once drawled, "I don't wanna talk about it." Kevin's final acting out, which makes Eva into a pariah, is ritualized and stylized to an almost absurd/mythic proportion, but Ramsay makes the actions register as shudderingly as raw documentary footage. Despite the scenario's ample opportunities for scoring facile anti-contemporary culture/sociology points, Ramsay insists on keeping her parable raw and elemental. Swinton does the same with her magnificent performance: She's like a contained, walking, talking embodiment of Munch's "The Scream."
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.