Saturday, November 5, 2011

New Release Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)

We Need to Talk About Kevin opens in Australian cinemas November 17th.

This is going to be one of the more delicate reviews I have written in some time. We Need to Talk About Kevin, the extraordinary new film from acclaimed filmmaker, Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher and Morvern Caller), is an experience that benefits from knowing very little prior to viewing. As a result, this review will leave a lot unsaid. But it is my goal to try and convince everyone to check out this densely plotted, powerfully acted and truly shocking film, adapted from the acclaimed 2003 novel by Lionel Shriver.

Shriver herself has praised Ramsay’s film, by claiming it to be a “brilliant adaptation”. I have not read the novel, though it is now on my to-do list, but I think this enhanced the mesmerising experience. The reason being that I think the surprises offered by this film are better served without this prior knowledge. We Need to Talk About Kevin opened to immense critical praise at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, before also taking home Best Film at the recent BFI London Film Festival.

We Need to Talk About Kevin explores the factious relationship between Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton, I Am Love) and her son Kevin (played at Rocky Duer as an infant, Jasper Newell as a 6-8 year old and Ezra Miller [City Island] as a teenager). The film tracks Eva’s contention with the increasing malevolence of her first-born son, much to the ignorance of her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly, Magnolia). The result is a stunning (and climactic) act that shatters the lives of the family, and forces Eva to consider her parenting and forever live with the belief that she was responsible for his misguided path.

The film seamlessly blends together, in the style that equates to that of a waking-dream, chapters of Eva’s relationship with Kevin. It is never immediately evident that we have switched to a memory/flashback. These scenes are shot in a similar style to suggest that the nightmare – this constricting emotional bubble that Eva lives in – is still very present. As the mystery is unveiled, understanding never eludes the viewer. For such a dense and complex film, it is impressively coherent.

There is this ever-present paranoiac sense of dread as the horrifying realism of Kevin’s personality, his intuitions and sadistic desires, is revealed. There are subtle details that suggest that Eva has more influence on Kevin than she believes – her lining up of the eggshells, and he his fingernails, and her cruel comments about undesirable people that he proclaims to have adopted. Ramsay does a great job by generating suspense and shock entirely through what she suggests. The screenplay is so taut, that powerful emotions are produced through the allusions to what we don’t see.

One problem I did initially have was accepting that Kevin’s father never caught onto his son’s peculiar behaviours. Franklin believes that Kevin is an innocent little kid who is naturally going to find mischief. Even when he is older, he is blinded by his pride for his son’s skills as an archer. From the perspective of the memories (which are Eva’s), Franklin is absent a lot of time, but when he is at home, Kevin is sweet and behaves normally around his father. Around his mother he is a brooding, conniving little brat. You get the impression there should have been a bit more communication between the parents about Kevin. 

We Need to Talk About Kevin could (and should) find itself amongst Oscar consideration, with potential nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Ramsay), Best Adapted Screenplay (Ramsay and Rory Stewart Kinnear), Best Actress (Swinton), Best Supporting Actor (Ezra Miller) and Best Editing. Tilda Swinton especially, delivers an exquisite performance, but Ezra Miller, an electric young talent whose work in the otherwise average City Island was impressive, makes this controversial role entirely his own.

Eva evolves throughout the film, and in each of the chapters Swinton brings something different to her character, to represent not only her own aging and growing existential weariness, but also her altered parenting style to accompany Kevin’s growth into a teenager. In the period following the trauma, Eva is forced to suppress her ever-present fear and anxiety and her feelings of guilt and responsibility, as she tries to maintain a confident, optimistic and forward-thinking persona. Her natural frustrations as a parent, her self-contained anger and her evident resentment of her son (despite her very humanitarian attempts to heal the emotional wounds that divide them) will draw empathy and sympathy - especially from audience members who are parents themselves.

It’s an Oscar-worthy portrayal of a strong-willed but emotionally fragile woman who is constantly at odds with one of the most beautiful roles offered to females - motherhood. Her life is a living nightmare; she never catches a break (an evil brat of a son and a husband who seems to be oblivious to her torment) and her harrowing experiences are unimaginable.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a chilling, hauntingly surreal psychological thriller that displays a unique assuredness in craft and delves into a plethora of themes; including the possibility of the natural existence of pure evil, moral ambiguities about a mother’s responsibility to her child,  the insignificance of the individual in this technology-saturated world and media influenced violence. The controversial content will be sensitive to many viewers, but is remarkably restrained in what it reveals, despite being no less powerful as a result.

Lynne Ramsay has built one of the most unsettling and thought-provoking films of the year. I was in shock following the screening. I had a sick feeling in my stomach and I wandered aimlessly through the city and questioned why anyone would want to have children. It’s the sign of a great film when these sorts of feelings are generated. It’s mesmerizing, deeply affecting, and essential viewing.

My Rating: ★★★★★ (A)


  1. "and questioned why anyone would want to have children"- well, I understand why it would give you such a question, but you know, you really should have children :) ever since I saw the trailer, I knew it would be a difficult fim to watch
    anyway, me and my best friend keep talking about seeing this movie, but we keep forgeting to go- maybe this weekend or next wendsday we will finally see it!great review!

  2. Can't wait to see this. Sometimes I think Tilda Swinton is from another planet.

  3. This is the film I want to see more than anything right now having become a big fan of Ramsay this year. So should I read the book first or just see the movie and check out the book later?

  4. What a beautiful, powerful film review. I feel that I can't watch this because of the subject matter, but having read this I have no doubt it is magnificent. It sounds like Tilda Swinton really displayed the full range of her amazing talent here.

  5. @ Aziza - It just made me question it. I'll have children some day haha ;-)

    The trailer is creepy, and it got such praise at Cannes that I had a feeling it was going to be great. You and your best friend should go and see it. Thanks for reading, Aziza. Always a pleasure to have you stop by!

    @ Bonjour - Yeah, she has a strange look about her (but usually very attractive) and she is in a league of her own in terms of acting talent.

    @ Steven - I think you should just give the film a go. I have heard the book is amazing - but if this is as good an adaptation as everyone claims, I think it is worth going in blind and experiencing it without any knowledge of the story.

    @ Stephanie - Thank you so much! It is tough viewing, especially for mothers and parents, but it is an extraordinary achievement from Lynne Ramsay for crafting such a haunting piece of work, and Tilda Swinton, who is superb.

  6. Haven't seen this but it looks superb. Heard great things about the cinematography and acting.

  7. @ Tyler - You heard right. Check it out!

    @ John - Looking forward to your thoughts, John.

  8. Fantastic review Andy,

    I can't wait to see this one, and I've been meaning to get hold of some of Lynne Ramsay's earlier work as well, I've heard Ratcatcher is great.

    And just a small point, I think Lionel Shriver is a woman.

  9. Thanks Jack. Oops. That is a bad error. Thanks for picking that up. I hope you too enjoy the film when you get the chance to see it...

  10. Just saw this a couple of days ago, and it's already in my top 2-3 for the year. Simply fantastic film on all levels.

    On your comment "You get the impression there should have been a bit more communication between the parents about Kevin" - yeah, hence the title. :) Although every time she did try to talk to Franklin about Kevin, he didn't believe her. But it's all told so closely from Eva's point of view that I'm not sure how much we can trust even of what we see. She's not a reliable narrator.

  11. It is pretty close to perfection in my opinion. Yeah, I was being a little bit cheeky with that comment, and I think that what makes the film so tragic is the fact that it is all from Eva's point of view.

    The actions of her husband seem strange - but these are exaggerated, I think, in her attempts to maybe shift some blame she has placed on herself. We never actually see Kevin and Franklin alone together (from memory) so their relationship is always portrayed with Eva present. I was mesmerised throughout, it's in my Top 5 for the year. Just as a matter of interest, what is your #1 so far?

  12. I think it's a combination of her taking blame and trying to shift it to Kevin and/or Franklin. That's what makes it so interesting, is you're never sure if Kevin is a devil child and she's doing all she can to deal with him, or if she's a devil parent and made Kevin what he was. It's likely some combination of a difficult child and an ineffective parent, but the balance between the two and how it seems to shift constantly in her disturbed memory is fascinating.

    The Tree of Life is still my #1.

  13. Fantastic review. That movie almost ended up in my top 10 of last year, great picture with very eerie vibes and amazing execution. Swinton's performance was absolutely amazing but her best work for me remains "Julia" and "Michael Clayton"