Who do we blame when one person is the instrument of a horrible tragedy? Is it the person who committed the crime itself, or do we blame their environment, specifically their parents? In the case of Kevin (Jasper Newell/Ezra Miller), an eerie, sociopathic teenager behind a horrible event at his high school and Eva (Tilda Swinton), the mother he terrorized his entire life, it’s an interesting dynamic to look at. But in “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” director Lynn Ramsay’s adaptation of the Lionel Shriver novel, pretends to look at that debate. What it really does is take a delicate, psychologically rich dynamic and drown it in an over-stylized, horrific and heavy-handed mess of a movie.
I haven’t read Shriver’s book, but I do know it was structured as a series of letters written by Eva for her estranged husband, Franklin (played here by John C. Reilly), after an unknown, cataclysmic event that may have involved Kevin. The movie adopts a non-linear approach, which at the beginning of the movie makes things somewhat confusing. Three timelines are clumsily weaved through abstract imagery of Eva after the event, when she was vacationing in France and got pregnant with Kevin, and the day of the tragedy. But there are some things that are clear right off the bat. Eva never wanted to be a mother in the first place. She feels shackled by the blase trappings of the domestic life, wishing she could still travel across Europe as a travel writer. Also, there’s something not right about Kevin. At first one might think he’s a sullen, withdrawn kid (and later a teenager) but we learn quickly that he’s pure no-holds-barred evil, making the Antichrist look like one of the Flanders kids from “The Simpsons.”
The wretched, symbiotic relationship between Eva and Kevin is the engine of the film, But this relationship and the way in which Ramsay tells the story that sink “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” I haven’t seen Ramsay’s previous independent work, and I will say she is a gifted visual stylist. But she destroys any and all nuance and subtlety to the relationship between Kevin and Eva through the years. She throws imagery depicting decay; rotting food, crayon-covered walls, etc. that is meant to be visceral but totally rings hollow. There is a lot of cheery, old folk and pop songs on the soundtrack, that wield irony like a fucking sledgehammer. The cheery bounce of “Everyday” by Buddy Holly shows up. Why? BECAUSE IT’S A HAPPY SONG AND THE LIVES OF THESE CHARACTERS ARE HORRIBLE! IT’S IRONY! GET IT?!? It’s clever the first time it’s used, but after the fourth time an old song about the joys of motherhood is used, it’s just plain tiresome.
An even worse device, one that is lifted wholesale from the Martin Scorsese playbook, is liberal use of the color red. Every frame of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” has red on it. Eva’s house gets doused with paint. Kevin plays with a red ball. There’s nothing worse than overuse of symbolism, an incredibly hacky way of establishing a theme or message when used incorrectly. We get a shot of red jam on Kevin’s sandwich, red furniture, streaks of blood, red everywhere. When someone like Scorsese uses red, it’s used in small doses, to underscore a character’s sins and passions. This movie uses it as the impetus for what might be a pretty fun and beneficial drinking game, since you’ll be passed out or suffering from alcohol poisoning long before Ramsay’s obvious and heavy-handed messages are through sucking the life out of the story.
That story, the chronicle of Eva’s downfall as a mother and a human being and Kevin’s degradation from brat to sociopath to homicidal lunatic, has bigger even more troubling problems. Kevin redefines problem child. He cried all the time as a baby. He wrecked everything his mother held dear. He refuses to speak around her as a toddler, and even refuses to use the toilet until he is eight years old. It’s at this point that Eva’s frustration leads to a boiling point, a brief flash of parental abuse that will lead both characters into a hell of their own making. As a teenager, Kevin takes up archery which he bonds over with his affable, naive father (O’Reilly is perfectly cast, but totally wasted) and he torments and injures his angelic younger sister Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich). Kevin is a monster and that is never in doubt. In a way Eva is also a monster. She has contempt for Kevin, blaming him for trapping her in the suburb dungeon, making her adventures in Europe into just another pipe dream. She tells Kevin as a baby that she’d rather be in France than taking care of him. Kevin, before and after he is imprisoned for his actions, is just a cross for Eva to bear, but society refuses to let her become a martyr for it. This sounds like a brave, tough angle to take in terms of soured mother-son relationships. But although the concept is there, the execution squanders it underneath the film’s central hypocrisy.
“We Need To Talk About Kevin” does not know how it wants to present this dichotomy. It says Eva is a bad mother, who never truly loved her son and is partly to blame for his crimes, but at the same time it says Kevin’s case can’t be helped, because, you know, he’s a Chaplin mustache short of being Hitler. This movie wants to have its cake and eat it too (the cake is obviously red velvet, because RED IS THE SYMBOL FOR EVERYTHING! THIS MOVIE HAS THEMES DAMMIT!). It says that Eva is to blame for being a bad mother and not trying to reach Kevin, but at the same time Kevin is born evil, a bad seed, and couldn’t be saved. Those two philosophies don’t compute at all.
At least Eva’s perspective is salvaged by an amazing performance by Tilda Swinton. One of the most unique and versatile actresses working today, Swinton uses her unique face and large, dark eyes to convey years of guilt, self-loathing and despair. Swinton turns Eva into a shameful wreck, desperately trying to piece together her shattered soul. It’s a brutal, uncompromising performance, which is saying a lot since this character is thoroughly compromised. Ezra Miller is also very good as Kevin, even though his character has bigger problems, ones that harm not only the film, but speaks to something larger that needs to be addressed. Kevin is a caricature, more like a horror movie villain than a real human being. His outburst of violence doesn’t seem like a tragic result. Since his character has no arc, it feels like a foregone conclusion that he would do what he does. His character, quite frankly, is appallingly reductive. The idea that kids are born evil is just plain idiotic. Teenagers who do these horrible things were normal at one time, and it took years of neglect to make them do what they do. All the stereotypes that came up after Colombine: death metal, torturing small animals, etc. were eventually dispelled. Marilyn Manson didn’t make anyone murder anybody. To strip Kevin of subtext, making him evil literally since the day he was born, is a gross miscalculation of how the minds of these teenager really work. It throws away everything we’ve learned from these tragedies and replaces them with campy, horror movie tropes. Some may think Ramsay and the film are being ambiguous about who to blame. I don’t see ambiguity, I see cowardice.
Great performances aren’t enough to save “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” a film that turns it’s provocative title into a bald-faced lie. It never talks about Kevin, it expects us to be appalled by him, like a teenage Hannibal Lecter or John Doe. It strives for bold insight, and settles for bullshit. Lynn Ramsay needed to stop smearing every scene with blood red, and should’ve gone with more troubling shades of gray.