You’ll never eat a chestnut or listen to the cacophony of a jackhammer the same way after watching “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” the intense and unnerving new film from Lynne Ramsey (Ratcatcher,” “Movern Callar”). “Kevin,” which won Best Film at BFI’s London Film Festival, chronicles the events leading up to, during and after a horrific school shooting of which fifteen-year-old Kevin (Ezra Miller) is responsible. In a narrative twist, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is not told through the point of view of Kevin, a homicidal sociopath, but is rather an exploration into the psyche of Kevin’s mother Eva, played by Tilda Swinton (“Michael Clayton,” “I Am Love”).
The film, which was adapted from Lionel Shriver’s eponymous novel, undertakes the evolution of the excruciating guilt that Eva feels for her son’s heinous actions. Kevin is her first child, and Ramsey gives us flashbacks of Eva when she is pregnant with Kevin, and deeply depressed. To emphasize Eva’s formerly free-spirited, pre-Kevin existence, Ramsey also begins the film with another flashback of Eva in a state of ecstasy during Spain’s La Tomatina, crowd-surfing atop a mob of tomato-stained flesh. In a clever transition from a blissful, Kevin-less past to a nightmarish present, the following scene finds Eva in her dilapidated house, her skin misted red not from tomato gore but from the scarlet paint that she laboriously attempts to scrub from her vandalized house. Eva also ritualistically eats scrambled eggs (and in one self-flagellating scene, she crunches on pieces of broken egg-shells). It is as if Eva is attempting to annihilate her birth to Kevin through some twisted, symbolic form of cannibalism that would fit nicely into Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus.”
Ramsey is no stranger to harrowing themes and stories, especially true in her debut feature, “Ratcatcher.” But in spite of its grisliness, “Ratcatcher” was a coming-of-age story as well as a unique period piece; a candid, unflinching glimpse into an obscure time and place—the garbage strike in 1970s Glasgow. “We Need to Talk About Kevin” does not have the aesthetic or narrative grandeur of her first film; at times, especially the scenes depicting Kevin’s early childhood menace, the film is downright depressing. It is the fearless performance of Tilda Swinton that saves “Kevin” from drowning in its own morbidity. Ms. Swinton can contort her alabaster, porcelain features into a grotesque mask of grief like no other actor I’ve seen (in ‘I Am Love,” her transformation from maternal warmth to a mother paralyzed by grief and guilt is almost supernaturally chilling). And despite the grim tenor of “Kevin,” Ramsey does allow Swinton to have some darkly humorous moments, such as her matter-of-fact, straight-faced response to religious solicitors who knock on her door: “I’m going straight to hell.” Another wickedly droll scene is when Eva takes the teenage Kevin (Ezra Miller) out for miniature golf and dinner. Eva counters Kevin’s nonchalance and smugness with her own shrewd awareness that their efforts towards a mother/son relationship are merely a role-playing farce.
Aside from Swinton, the redeeming element of “Kevin” is the air of uncertainty surrounding any possible explanations for Kevin’s heinous actions. Ramsey takes the audience so deep inside Eva’s fraught head and heart that we don’t know whether Kevin’s sociopathic behavior, especially as a young child, is tangible or exaggerated by Eva as a symptom of post-partum depression. Because of this ambiguity, Kevin and Eva form a perverted symbiotic relationship in which both are victims of each other’s behavior; Kevin of his mother’s coldness and at times, physical abuse, and Eva of her son’s inscrutable malice. The question after any unspeakable act of violence is always “Why?” Eva does not ask her son that question until the film’s coda, and perhaps it is because she is afraid that his answer will expose her own inherent responsibility for his actions. It is also a question that is must be posed about this film: Why make a film on such a problematic subject and choose to portray an atrocious act of mass murder other than to exploit shock and provoke? Regrettably, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” fails to do little more than just that.