Movie Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin
The Charlotte Observer
Critics starved for thoughtful movies will often mistake the will for the deed. A serious film about an important subject seems like an important film, even if the effort falls far short of the target.
So it is with “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” Where director and co-writer Lynne Ramsay needs to bring us answers or at least provocative ideas about a Columbine-like killing spree, the best she can supply is a hapless shrug.
The nonlinear script she wrote with Rory Kinnear keeps us off-balance for its first half, as we leap back and forth in time. (They adapted Lionel Shriver’s novel.) The earliest scenes show the limp romance between Eva and Franklin (Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly); later scenes depict her agonizing attempts to rebuild her life after their teenage son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), murders many of his high school classmates.
As we piece this puzzle together, we watch the bewildered but patiently affectionate Eva raise a boy who seems to be a demon seed from the moment of his difficult birth.
Kevin shows nothing but unearned contempt for her throughout childhood. His malevolence turns to overt cruelty as he ages, but the dim-witted Franklin writes his creepy son off as a growing boy full of mischief. Even after 17-year-old Kevin stuffs his little sister’s guinea pig down the garbage disposal, Dad buys him a professional archery set. (Oops! Wonder how that’ll turn out!)
Eva’s endless patience, Franklin’s cluelessness and the sister’s affection for a brother who torments her all defy belief. Except for a brief mention of Prozac, there’s no indication Eva and Franklin sought professional help for a child who radiates malice.
The movie inspires questions without answering any. Why does Eva stay with this loveless, uncommunicative husband before the tragedy? Why does she live in the same town afterward, although strangers punch her in the face on the sidewalk and hurl red paint across her house?
Most of all, what are we to make of Kevin? Is he Damien from “The Omen,” put on Earth to do evil? Did his parents’ failure to assess his problems lead to violence? (If so, why was he always angry at 2 years old?) We wait for Ramsay to provide some kind of hypothesis, and…nada.
Reilly looks stupefied, and Miller glowers – simplistic performances, but all that’s asked of them. Swinton gets the only opportunity to present a rounded character, and she explores a huge range of emotions in a subtle way.
Yet subtlety is wasted here. Ramsay is the kind of director who’ll play “In My Room,” the Beach Boys song about a high school kid whose bedroom is his sanctuary, as Eva searches Kevin’s room for drugs.
Every scene – literally every scene, except for those in prison after the slayings – has a red object in it, usually in the foreground. This is Ramsay’s way of forecasting disaster: Red, you see, is the harbinger of violence and blood. This is the kind of symbolism critics find profound, even when the movie filled with it is not.