A happy family forced and failedBy Ann Hornaday
Friday, Mar. 2, 2012
Like a tragedy in slow motion, "We Need to Talk About Kevin" unfolds with a dreadful sense of foreboding and inexorability. From its very first scene, in which a woman sacrifices herself in a viscerally evocative ritual, Lynne Ramsay's thoughtful, unnerving film works its strange power over viewers who are likely to find themselves as compelled as repelled by its fatally flawed key players.
Chief among those troubling protagonists is the woman in that first sequence, Eva Khatchadourian, a travel writer whom we first see celebrating the annual tomato festival in Bunol, Spain. The fact that pulped tomatoes bear a distinct resemblance to blood and guts is no mistake in "We Need to Talk About Kevin," a distillation of Lionel Shriver's 2003 novel that squarely, sardonically and with shattering lucidity took on the taboo subject of maternal ambivalence.
And the fact that Eva is played by the towering presence known as Tilda Swinton accounts for why Shriver's spiky, ferociously intelligent narrator projects the same fierce sense of unease with only a fraction of her words. Haunted, penitent and nearly incapacitated by guilt and grief through much of the movie, Swinton's Eva counts as one of the most potent physical performances on-screen this season, as expressive and resonant as any of its far cheerier analogs in "The Artist."
Fans of Shriver's book may be disappointed to learn that Ramsay has thrown out its epistolary structure, and Eva's sardonic, self-reflective voice along with it, but the choice is crucial and utterly on-point.
When Eva and her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly), welcome a son into the world, they do their best to create the kind of cozy cocoon their fellow Manhattanites confect within their monuments to narcissism and ambition. But from the start, Kevin - played in the film by Rock Duer, Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller, respectively - seems to see right through their conceits, refusing to play along, whether in a game of toss or the impersonation of a happy family.
The painful scenes of Eva and Franklin coming to terms - or, more pointedly, not coming to terms - with Kevin's escalating displays of manipulation and cruelty play out in brief, stylized episodes, many of which take place in Eva and Franklin's spacious but empty suburban McMansion. Like so many revolutionary roads before it, Eva's journey of ambivalence and discontent doesn't end well, a grim trope that Ramsay infuses with the suspense and heightened visuals of a modern-day horror film.
As squirm-inducing as the story is, and as timely a note as it strikes, "We Need to Talk About Kevin" turns out not to be about the social problems of violence or alienated teens as much as it's a meditation on the unspoken emotional transmissions between parents and children.
Rather than galvanizing feelings of something-must-be-done, viewers are left with a far less tidy reminder that, while our worst drives and impulses generally go underground, they can just as easily be passed on and magnified.
In stripping down and recasting Shriver's brilliant prose into her own equally bold piece of cinema, Ramsay manages to convey perhaps the most important irony of "We Need to Talk About Kevin": The truth hurts, sure, but it's the cover-up that kills you.
Contains disturbing violence and behavior, some sexuality and profanity.