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We Need to Talk About Kevin

Opinion doesn’t come much more divided than the critical reaction to We Need to Talk About Kevin, starring Tilda Swinton as the mother of a psychopathic son. As many respected, intelligent commentators have raved about the film as have panned it as one of the years worst.

Me, I’m hard-pressed to render a verdict on it. At least for most of its 110 minutes it is compelling viewing. (My wife sat down to watch a few minutes of it before going to bed and ended up watching the whole thing with me.) The film unfolds as a hodgepodge of memories from a clearly disturbed psyche, with only Swinton’s varying hair length to clue us in to the passage of time. These jagged scenes encompass a period of time from before her marriage (to Franklin, about whom it is sufficient to say that he is played by John C. Reilly) to a life living alone in a small town where people hate her so much that they feel free to strike her on the street.

What happened? I’m not giving away much to say that her son Kevin was the cause of an incident in which people died. Why did he do it? We don’t know. Apparently more to the point is, did Eva turn Kevin into the monster that he was?

We Need to Talk About Kevin was directed by Lynne Ramsay, a Scottish filmmaker with a dour worldview whose previous films (Ratcatcher, Movern Callar) also had a nightmarish quality. It was adapted from a bestselling novel by Lionel Shriver, which Ramsay changed considerably to focus on Eva’s interior struggle. Was it sloppiness on Ramsay’s part to leave in bits that refer to the novel but make no sense on their own in the film, like a poster of Eva in a bookstore window? (Nothing else in the film suggests that she has ever had a career outside of her house.)

There are so many improbable details in the film, so many blatantly unrealistic elements, that it can only be approached as an attempt to replicate a subjective state of mind, though even by that rationale it lacks consistency. It benefits substantially from the fact that Swinton is an actress whom you could not take your eyes off of were she doing nothing but sitting and staring, as it does from Ezra Miller’s embodiment of a boy who is simply (you might say “merely”) evil. It’s a fascinating film to watch, but ultimately a frustrating one.

Watch the trailer for We Need to Talk About Kevin

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