By Michelle Chung
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” raises more difficult questions than it answers. Based on the novel of the same name, “Kevin” tells the story of Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) before and after her 15-year-old son Kevin (Ezra Miller) massacres students and faculty of his high school. This main plot is interrupted by dreams and flashbacks of Eva’s life before the murders, her son’s imprisonment and her ostracization and villainization by her town.
Eva struggled with Kevin even during her pregnancy. She is ambivalent about becoming a mother and unhappy with the physical changes in her body, but most of all worried about the sacrifices she must make. While her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) is thrilled to move out of the city and into well-furnished suburbia, Eva is hesitant, believing the move marks the inevitable end of her independence and personal ambitions. Kevin’s birth does not improve Eva’s ambivalence. As an infant, he is colicky; in one scene, Eva stands next to an active construction site, jackhammer thundering, for temporary relief from her infant’s incessant screams. As a toddler, he is deliberately difficult, alternately belligerent or menacingly silent. The adolescent Kevin is no less enigmatic, manipulative or mean-spirited, his adolescent snark occasionally boiling away to reveal someone as angry and cruel as he is wounded.
Though “Kevin” could easily have turned out to be a flat melodrama better suited for the Lifetime Channel than the silver screen, its generally sharp acting keeps it well within the boundaries of taste. While Swinton’s glassy stares begin to become as predictable as the film’s heavy-handed usage of the color red, she otherwise demonstrates Eva’s confusion, guilt, exasperation and shame to a T. If her vulnerability had been as convincing as her exhaustion, “Kevin” could easily rank as one of Swinton’s strongest recent performances. Reilly, who plays Swinton’s husband, did well in the film’s few lighthearted scenes but was less believable during the film’s austere moments. Miller’s portrayal of the teenage killer showed restraint; his flashes of vulnerability are as poignant and convincing as his bursts of cruelty and rage.
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a challenging film, not only because of the brutality at its center but also because it does not shy from bleak questions or subjects. Was Eva’s refrigerator-mother style of parenting the cause of her son’s disturbances or was she a victim of a terrible circumstance? Why did Kevin act as he did? Was it adolescent ennui? Sociopathy? Or most unsettling of all, perhaps there was no reason at all.