December 8, 2011 at 5:35 pm #45553
Good but not exactly enticing NYTimes review
Movie Review | ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’
Suffocated by Motherhood, and a Child Whose Hold Still Lingers
By A. O. SCOTT
“Every parent’s nightmare” would be the evening news boilerplate description
Need to Talk About Kevin,” Lynne
Ramsay’s disturbing movie about the mother of a child who goes on a killing
spree at his high school. That trite phrase is accurate in an almost technical
sense: Ms. Ramsay (who adapted Lionel Shriver’s novel with Rory Stewart Kinnear)
follows a kind of dream logic in telling a chronologically splintered story,
weaving patterns of associated images and sensations into an intense and
claustrophobic web of fear.
But the vividness of its effects makes the film very much a particular
parent’s nightmare, pitched at the extreme boundary of everyday anxieties. Tilda
Swinton, who plays the anguished mother, is far too specific a screen
presence to be an easy audience surrogate. Much of the queasy fascination that
the film exerts is the result of her uncanny ability to play against any
Her character, Eva Khatchadourian, is too complicated for pity, projecting a
mixture of cold poise and extreme vulnerability that makes her predicament
especially awful. We watch as she loses everything except her dignity, but it is
precisely that noble, steely pride that places her just beyond the range of a
sympathy that she would most likely refuse, in any case.
“We Need to Talk About Kevin,” though it evokes real-life atrocities like the
1999 Columbine school shootings, is less a psychological or sociological case
study than a horror movie, a variant on the bad-seed narrative that feeds on a
primal (and seldom acknowledged) fear of children. What if they turn out wrong?
What if we can’t love them? What if they refuse to love us? These worries are
rarely dealt with in the child-rearing manuals, but they hover over modern
nurseries like the ghosts of ancient fairy-tale curses.
Eva, a travel writer who once enjoyed a life of free-wheeling Bohemian bliss
— we catch glimpses of her in ecstasy at religious festivals in India and at
ease in picturesque European cities — is brought down to earth by pregnancy and
motherhood. With her amiable, practical husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly), she
abandons a downtown loft for a house in the suburbs and sacrifices her
wanderlust on the altar of responsibility.
Does her son appreciate the sacrifice? That can hardly be expected, but
little Kevin (played in toddlerhood by Rock Duer and latency by Jasper Newell)
has been born with a filial ingratitude sharper than any serpent’s tooth. More
than that, he possesses, from infancy, an active and demonic hostility toward
his mother. His incessant crying when he is in Eva’s care comes to seem like the
opening salvo in a long campaign to wreck her happiness and destroy her peace of
He refuses to be toilet trained well into middle childhood, messes up her
most precious possessions and quietly sows seeds of discord between Eva and
Franklin. The arrival of a younger sister (Ashley Gerasimovich), far from easing
the tension in the family, only gives Kevin new opportunities to show what a
manipulative little sociopath he can be.
The adolescent Kevin is played by Ezra
Miller, whose narrow eyes and high cheekbones suggest more a clone of Ms.
Swinton than a child she might have had with the soft-featured Mr. Reilly.
Mother and son, both lean, watchful and dark-haired, are like a pair of
predatory reptiles incongruously housed with the fluffy, friendly animals. Their
antagonism is its own kind of bond, which makes its fulfillment almost
The film shuttles back and forth between Eva’s life in the aftermath of
Kevin’s crime — when she is alone and in disgrace, shunned and abused by the
people she had never wanted to live among in the first place — and the events
that led up to it. Horror movies tend to be relentlessly linear, moving in a
crescendo of suspense that grows out of our panicked curiosity about what will
happen next. Ms. Ramsay, with ruthless ingenuity, creates a deeper dread and a
more acute feeling of anticipation by allowing us to think we know what is
coming and then shocking us with the extent of our ignorance.
There is a measure of sadism in this method, to be sure, but also a lot of
craft. In her previous features, “Ratcatcher”
Callar,” Ms. Ramsay showed a mastery of mood and atmosphere, an ability to
make narrative film feel like an intoxicating and abstract fusion of painting
“We Need to Talk About Kevin,” with help from Seamus McGarvey’s fever-flushed
cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s heartsick, throbbing score, saturates the
senses like illness or bad weather. It is beautiful and demonic, like Kevin
himself, and the bad feelings it induces are likely to be accompanied by
helpless and stricken admiration. You may well need to talk about it afterward,
but then again, you may be left speechless.December 8, 2011 at 6:21 pm #45555
A terrific review from Variety:
After a nine-year sabbatical from feature filmmaking, Scottish helmer Lynne Ramsay is back with a vengeance with “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” an exquisitely realized adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s bestselling novel. In a rigorously subtle perf as a woman coping with the horrific damage wrought by her psychopathic son, Tilda Swinton anchors the dialogue-light film with an expressiveness that matches her star turn in “I Am Love.” Craft contributions, especially from lenser Seamus McGarvey and editor Joe Bini, round out an immaculate package that will rep catnip for crix and get auds talking, but may be too bleak for the mainstream.
On paper, Shriver’s distinctively voiced, Stateside-set first-person narrative might have seemed like a mismatch for Ramsay’s visually stylized, European-arthouse sensibility. But as she proved with her 2002 sophomore effort, “Morvern Callar,” Ramsay has no qualms about shearing great chunks of exposition from the texts she works with to get to the heart of the story. Here, as in her previous work, especially her 1999 feature debut, “Ratcatcher,” trained photographer Ramsay lets pure film technique do the heavy lifting in order to convey the desolate emotional climate that makes the central tragedy happen. To echo a key line Kevin speaks at one point, the look and tone of the film isn’t something that has to be understood in context; it is the context.
Pic unspools through a fluid system of flashbacks that require auds to pay close attention to the length of Swinton’s hair to know what’s happening when. Told chronologically, the story relates how travel-writer-turned-publisher Eva Khatchadourian (Swinton) and her photographer husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) awkwardly swap a boho hipster lifestyle in Gotham for upmarket suburbia to make a home for their son, Kevin (played as a toddler by Rocky Duer, as a 6- to 8-year-old by Jasper Newell, and finally, chillingly as a teen by Ezra Miller), and later his sister, Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich).
Although Eva and Franklin intentionally conceive Kevin out of love for each other, motherhood doesn’t come easily to this adventurous, fiercely independent, some might say selfish woman, especially when faced with an angry, colicky baby. At one point, she tells her toddler son while he’s angrily splattering the walls with baby food that, quite frankly, she’d rather be in Paris than sitting with him at that moment, an honest reaction many mothers feel but don’t usually dare articulate. The scene and others like it neatly establish the story’s unanswerable core conundrum: Is Kevin just a bad seed, or did Eva’s strained, unhappy first attempt at parenting turn him into a monster?
As in the book, it’s revealed fairly early on that at some point Kevin did something horrible and deadly at his high school that created a small avenging army of grieving parents, whom a now-alone Eva must constantly dodge and withstand abuse from in the film’s present tense. The finer details are meted out in small, cruel shocks (gore is minimal, but the telling details are no less disturbing). And just like the book, the pic saves its cruelest revelation for last, in a reveal even the most genre-trained auds might not see coming.
Ramsay and splicer Bini (best known for his work with Werner Herzog) devise some innovative edits, like one ironic match-on-action that juxtaposes a pregnant Eva, walking down a hallway surrounded by little girls in tutus, with a walk of shame down a prison corridor years later. But the quick fluttering between time periods, especially in the pic’s first half, may prove a bit too brittle and mannered for some viewers.
That said, when things settle down into longer, deeper breaths in the second half and the tragedy inexorably approaches, the technique pays off with tiny, close-up details, coming into their own as symbols or at least leitmotifs, some of which resonate with moments in Ramsay’s earlier work (like a curtain seen at the beginning that recalls “Ratcatcher”). Sound design by Paul Davies is similarly playful and foreboding; the whoosh of sprinklers has never been more menacingly deployed than it is here.
Present in every scene so that there’s no doubt that her character’s consciousness is filtering what’s seen, Swinton delivers a concrete-hard central perf that’s up there with her best work. Sporting dark hair and brown contact lenses to suggest Eva’s Armenian heritage, her naturally ghostly pallor effectively sets her apart from the more luridly colored townsfolk she settles uncomfortably among. Playing it straight for a change, Reilly has warmth but perhaps not as well developed as a character. That couldn’t be said of Kevin, who’s perfectly rendered by the three cannily cast thesps who play him, from stern-faced tot Duer to chilling Newell and finally the elfin-featured yet disarmingly deep-voiced Miller.
Soundtrack choices, particularly Lonnie Donegan tunes and golden oldie pop like the Beach Boys’ “In My Room,” work in unsettling counterpoint to the visuals, enhancing the sense of foreboding so vital throughout. The fact that the setting is worlds away from Ramsay’s usual working-class Scottish milieu somehow works in the pic’s favor, so that the slightly exaggerated Americana feel of the locations mirrors Eva’s estrangement from her community. Widescreen lensing by McGarvey is aces, as usual.December 9, 2011 at 12:48 pm #45557
I do want to see this film. My schedule at TIFF was too hectic to fit it in.December 9, 2011 at 4:06 pm #45558
I’m planning to see this for Swinton. But, I’ll probably want to have a drink or two first, before I go.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Philip K Dick Blade RunnerDecember 13, 2011 at 1:20 pm #45559
This is reminiscent of another great film starring Swinton, Stephanie Daley, which also dealt with an expectant mother’s ambivalence. What happens when the feelings that are supposed to accompany the birth of a child – devotion, attachment, joy – never come? What happens when the child instead is something alien and sinister? Could you help but wonder if the problem is within you and not the child? … MY FULL REVIEWDecember 13, 2011 at 10:01 pm #45560
I caught this online over the weekend. Holy shit!!! This movie is not just dark. It’s black as pitch. Even the sweetest moment in the film feels like the most sinister in the full context of the film. Think of the happiest film you’ve ever seen. We Need to Talk About Kevin is the recipricle of that film.
In fact, I personally had a tough time deciding how much I liked this movie. On one hand, it is among the most grim pieces of cinema I’ve ever watched. We Need to Talk About Kevin has been classified by many as horror, but I don’t know if I agree with that. It’s more Lynchian than anything. It’s got the same dark undertones as Mulholland Drive (maybe a shade darker.) Either way, it’s creepy and very disconcerting. I believe that uncomfortable would be a good way to describe it.
On the other hand, the way it affected me as a filmgoer is a testament to the raw power this film affords. Swinton and Miller, and even younger incarnations of Kevin, go toe to toe and it is a strange battle indeed. If one looks at the relationship between Eva and Kevin as a war zone, then there are many perspectives as to how to view the end result, but I won’t ruin anything here.To the film’s credit, on top of a brilliant execution and phenomenal writing, this is easily Swinton’s best performance. If I could make her give back her Oscar for Michael Clayton (preferably to Cate Blanchett or an un-nominated Catherine Keener) this would be the film that could make up for it. She totally deserves the amount of recognition she has earned. I’ve never been a fan of her. She’s been a good actress, until now, where she has put in one of the best performances of the year. As a whole, the film is very engaging. Following Eva and understanding how her and her son arrived to the points that they’re at is interesting. Did you see Drive? It’s sort of the opposite of that. Where Drive is a very subdued type of action film, We Need to Talk About Kevin grabs at the viewer through its stylized narrative.
This is definitely a film to be seen, if only for Swinton. Despite a waivering opinion on my end, whether its simply so gloomy that it’s off putting or whether its unsettling atmosphere makes for a better viewing experience, I’d still recommend it, especially if one is a fan of this type of cinema. Make no mistake, this is not a bad film. Disliking something does not mean the subject is inherently negative, but rather not of the taste of its consumer.December 13, 2011 at 10:06 pm #45561This post was found to be inappropriate by the moderators and has been removed.December 19, 2011 at 12:58 pm #45562
Swinton gives a prodigious performance in the ornate, gloomy We Need to Talk About Kevin and is worthy of the awards she’s received so far, but, like the previous poster, I wish the film didn’t feel like a splintered, art-house version of The Bad Seed. There’s no nunace in the scenes with the monster child. Also problematic: though Swinton and Ezra Miller match up beautifully as a tense, ethereal, adverserial mother and son, Reilly isn’t believable as her husband.December 19, 2011 at 1:17 pm #45563
I greatly admire Swinton and overall respect the film. But in the history of the Oscars (maybe Shame is similar) this would probably be the most narratively radical film ever to receive an acting nomination (maybe Last Tango in Paris being close) – not that it is radical, but it is very outside the box for what Academy acting branch members are used to. (Think Gus Van Sant’s recent films other than Milk).
I just saw it over the weekend – again, I admire the performance, among leading contenders I’ve seen I’d have her at least up with Williams and Davis, but I now wonder whether the nomination is as likely as I did before.
Kudos to Swinton though for seeking out challenging material and creative, non-comfort zone directors.December 19, 2011 at 1:35 pm #45564
Kudos to Swinton though for seeking out challenging material and creative, non-comfort zone directors.
LOL! And there it is! I’m waiting for the Streep stans to crucify you on this one.
(And, for the record, I agree with you re: Swinton).December 19, 2011 at 1:45 pm #45565
It’s not just Streep – it’s a lot of big stars.
There’s a moment in the film, somewhat early on, where her character reacts in a way to her troubled young child (not the older Kevin) that is so shocking and uncomfortable that I doubt many actors would even do the film after reading the script. And yet Swinton pulls it off in a way that, while you never approve, at least makes in make sense momentarily, and then continues to not totally lose our sympathy.December 19, 2011 at 2:02 pm #45566
I thought she gave a brilliant performance and she deserves to be nominated..
I’ve yet to see Close and Streep….but for me, Swinton was better than everyone
else ive seen this year so far, including Williams and DavisDecember 21, 2011 at 10:28 pm #45567
In a sign of confidance about Swinton being nominated, Oscilloscope has moved up its release dates to 1/13 in NY and 1/20 in LA (at the Arclight, amazingly – pretty radical film for the most prestigious movie theatre in the country).December 22, 2011 at 10:26 am #45568
As it has been written here before,Ramsay exellently builds the athmosphere,Swinton acting is very good (Oscar nom) and also liked Ezra Miller,though I can hardly explain it,but I didn’t like the film.Mosly it’s “so what”?
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