We Need to Talk About Kevin is a pretentious, heavy-handed movie. Adapting Lionel Shriver’s novel about the mother of a teenager who goes on a killing spree at his school, director Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar) uses colors and symbols with the grace and ingenuity of a first-year film student. She foreshadows with the subtlety of a deaf stand-up comic playing to the back row. There are scenes in this film that are ineptly handled, and there are two critical roles that have been miscast. As the father, John C. Reilly seems completely out of place here — he’s too rumpled and oblivious — and as the adolescent Kevin, Ezra Miller arches his eyebrows and angles his face downward and gives the camera a look that’s a cross between the Kubrick stare and Zoolander’s Blue Steel. It’s a cheap, cartoonish performance.
And you know what? None of this matters, because Tilda Swinton is the star of We Need to Talk About Kevin, and her performance is so complex and volcanic and transfixing that all of the film’s flaws melt away. Swinton has always gravitated toward roles that leave a deep imprint — the unraveling aristocrat of I Am Love or the blowsy alcoholic of Julia — but the part of the harried Eva is different, because this is a character you’ve never seen before: A mother who fears — and hates — her own child from the moment he’s born.
Kevin is the ultimate bad seed: He’s evil as a toddler, when he purposely soils his diapers in front of his mom’s face the moment she’s finished changing him. He’s rotten as a boy, when he intentionally trashes the room she’s been decorating so patiently. And he’s even worse as a teenager, openly masturbating in front of her and pitting his father against her in passive-aggressive fashion. Eventually, he commits the worst conceivable crime imaginable, and he seems to be doing it simply to spite her.
We Need to Talk About Kevin has a fractured narrative, alternating between the past, before Kevin finally explodes with violence, and the present, when Eva must deal with the fallout of the crimes her son has committed. The entire film depends on Swinton, who must make us understand Eva’s guilt over Kevin’s acts, her shame at her inability to love him more and her inner disappointment at failing as a mother. The challenge is formidable, but Swinton nails every face, even though she’s stranded in an uneven, unconvincing movie. Meryl Streep and Viola Davis may be getting all the attention these days, but Swinton is the most fearless actress working in movies — and she keeps getting better. See We Need to Talk About Kevin, if only for her.
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly, Jasper Newell, Ashley Gerasimovich.
Director: Lynne Ramsay.
Screenwriters: Lynne Ramsay, Rory Kinnear. Based on the novel by Lionel Shriver.
Producer: Jennifer Fox.
An Oscilloscope Pictures release. Running time: 112 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, sexual situations, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema.