What is it that we always hear? Not just from friends, but especially in movies and TV shows about parenting. It's that there's "no guidebook" to being a parent. You just have to do your best and learn as you go. That assumes a level of parental instinct exists on even the most basic level, but what if there isn't? What if you hate your child? What if your child hates you and everything else just as much?
In We Need to Talk About Kevin, that emotional deficit leads to nightmarish consequences, the kind that would leave any rational parent breaking out in a drenching cold sweat. When we first meet Eva(Tilda Swinton), she seems adrift in this world. For unknown reasons she's hated and ridiculed by the people she meets on the street. In the heavily used flashbacks we see her during a happier time, spirited and in lust's grip with Franklin(John C. Reilly), the new man in her life. A particularly blissful evening leads to an unexpected pregnancy, marriage, and a fresh start in the suburbs.
From there it's immediately downhill, as their son, Kevin, is a handful from the start. Eva can't stop him from crying, to the point where she takes walks near construction sites just to drown him out. He doesn't listen to her, going out of his way to do the opposite of what she wants. She has no connection with the boy, and as he gets older nothing seems to change. The bond isn't there. She's not built for it, and even if she was, Kevin wouldn't want it. In time he only grows more violent and hateful, especially towards her. The dynamic changes as a little sister enters the family, with Kevin having someone completely defenseless to terrorize. Franklin, a clueless schmo of a husband thinks it's no big deal and that it'll pass. He has no idea how wrong he is, about as wrong as a parent can be about anything.
Marking the long awaited return of Lynne Ramsay as director and based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, the film poses an interesting nature vs. nurture question wrapped in a real life horror story . Was it Eva's lack of maternal guidance that leads Kevin down his murderous path? Or was he just a bad seed destined to go off on a killing spree? No answers are forthcoming, and that never really seems to be the point.
Ramsay, who has been away from the camera for nearly a decade, goes a little too far trying to leave a signature fingerprint on the film's look, bathing it in off-putting colors, specifically heavy reds to foreshadow the upcoming violence. The use of flashbacks and time jumping are overdone and add little to the story's impact. Ramsay's artistic flourishes, including some of the more dreamlike elements as we flash through Eva's memories, feel tacked on and unnecessary.
As many of Tilda Swinton's films tend to be, their success rests solely on her considerable acting talents. Here she is mesmerizing as Eva, a conflicted woman tortured by her own failings, appalled by her hatred for her own son. These are the types of roles Swinton excels at, the ones no other actress would dare to undertake. No one else could play this role and be as believable and haunting as Swinton is. Ezra Miller is woefully miscast as Kevin, however. A likable actor who has done good things before(he's great in City Island), he seems to be fighting to stay on Swinton's level, but ends up snarling and smirking like a bad comic book villain.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a tough film to endure, not because it's bad but because Swinton's performance is so uncomfortably raw. If there's a reason to see this movie, it's for her.