Monday, January 9, 2012

Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin

I got a chance to see We Need to Talk About Kevin before it came out in theaters, which was so exciting because I’ve been dying to see it ever since I saw the trailer. It looked exactly like my kind of movie – creepy, suspenseful, a little scary. I wasn’t even sure what it was about; from the scenes in the trailer I hypothesized that it was some sort of “Omen 2012,” because Kevin looked so… evil. As it turns out, there was nothing supernatural about Kevin, but as is so often the case, the hyper-realistic feeling of this film made it all the more frightening.

The film opens with a shot of Eva (Kevin’s mother, played painfully well by Tilda Swinton) awakening from what appears to be a pill- and alcohol-induced sleep. When she stumbles outside to go to work, we see that her house is splattered violently with bright red paint, as is the windshield of her car. Strangely, Eva does nothing but wipe off her car with a clump of newspaper and continue on to work.

As the film progresses, we discover that Kevin (Ezra Miller) is in jail, presumably for doing something very bad (though we don’t know what), something that not only he is hated and blamed for, but also Eva. Although we don’t find out exactly what happened until the end, the movie employs a series of flashbacks to show what life was like for Eva and her family before the incident. We see Eva briefly as a carefree, adventurous young woman and travel journalist, and we see her fall in love with her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly). On what seems to be a bit of a whim brought on by a romantic night, she and Franklin decide to get pregnant.

And that’s where all the trouble starts – immediately.

Though we only see Eva pregnant fleetingly, we’re given the distinct impression that she’s not very happy to be so. Once the romantic impulse has passed, she seems overwhelmed and depressed by the reality. A difficult birth only makes matters worse, accentuated by a shot of Franklin happily holding and rocking their newborn child while Eva sits up in her hospital bed, staring forward grimly, ignoring the child.

From there we see the highlights of Kevin’s childhood: he doesn’t, or perhaps refuses, to talk for years, and when he finally does his vocabulary consists mainly of the word “no” – except in the presence of his father, when he becomes sweet and bubbly. Similarly, it takes upwards of five years to potty train Kevin – Eva believes out of spite. He purposely has accidents and seems to revel in his mother’s anger and discomfort as she is forced to change his diaper. And things only get worse, far worse, as he ages.

The story flashes back between these scenes of Kevin growing up to Eva’s present day life. She lives in a small, hovel-like house where her husband and daughter are conspicuously absent, and she moves through her life like a zombie. Not only that, but she readily accepts the abuse of her neighbors and fellow townspeople. When a woman slaps her in the middle of the street, seemingly out of the blue, Eva refuses to take an onlooker up on their offer to call the police. Instead, she claims it was her own fault. It’s the same with her paint-splattered house; she toils every weekend, scrubbing and sanding away the paint like it’s her duty or a sentence.

The film is both written and shot sparingly. We only get enough dialogue and back-story to understand what is going on in the moment, and solely through Eva’s eyes. Similarly, while the color red haunts Eva throughout, we never get a big, bloody payoff. The film simply teases, worries the viewer with these splashes of color, making us wonder at the subtext. I think it’s the perfect way to present such a story.

The actors are well equipped to carry such an emotionally intense, but spare, film. Swinton in particular is already getting Oscar buzz, which is well deserved in my opinion. She shows in Eva the perfect balance of conflicting emotions: a strenuous effort to be a good mother while trying to contain her rage (which occasionally bubbles over into abuse, regardless of the circumstances) and barely-concealed contempt for Kevin. Ezra Miller is excellent as both the malicious, manipulative incarnation of Eva’s memories, as well as the more realistic version we see briefly, but powerfully, towards the end. Meanwhile, Reilly is perfect as the affable, clueless (or deeply in denial) father.

In the end, the viewer is left to wonder who is truly at fault for what happened. While Kevin indeed seems the embodiment of evil for most of the film, when he finally talks to his mother in jail his attitude and disposition are rather different from what we saw through the possibly tainted lens of Eva’s memory. Was Kevin born bad? Did Eva fail to bond with him from birth, dooming their relationship and his upbringing from the start? Or was it a combination of factors? We Need to Talk About Kevin offers no cut and dry answers, but it provides more than enough to consider.

Final Rating (out of 5):