John C. Reilly
Where do I start? I didn't read Lionel Shriver's novel this movie is based on, but it is telling the story of Eva (Swinton), a mother struggling with the aftermath of a high school massacre her son Kevin (Miller) has done. Pretty straightforward, right? Except WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, the movie, is anything but that. Lynne Ramsay's film has ambitions that go way beyond the narrative and it's both a strength and a weakness. I can't deny WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN has a gorgeous artistic direction and makes bold choices. But it's also somewhat of an hermetic mess. Tilda Swinton works her magic on screen again, but the syncopated movie structure (which is supposed to represent her trauma) never lets her find her rhythm. There is a lot of energy and desire, but little vision. Or maybe there is a vision, but you need to have read Shriver's novel and already empathize with Eva before the movie stars to get it.
The movie opens already after the fact, as Eva is trying to put her life back together. The case has been closed for a last a year (Kevin has already been sentenced) and yet she still has to face major hostility from the townsfolk. Her house gets doused with red paint, she gets punched in the face coming back from a job interview, she gets no love whatsoever. The only person who seem to have gained perspective since the incident is one of her son's victim, who's now wheelchair-bound. So Eva lives alone in a small, decrepit house and struggles with terrifying flashbacks. She's bound by a guilt that go way beyond Kevin's action. Eva feels guilty towards the victims, but also towards Kevin, because she always struggled with the idea of motherhood. She feels part responsible for what he son has become. At least, that's what I understood.
I liked the plot. It doesn't point the finger at an obvious scapegoat (guns, television, society, etc.) and implies that an act of such senseless violence has to be a complex an deeply rooted problem. I had issues with the way it was presented. Kevin is portrayed as a sociopath almost from the crib. He's a terrible child any mother would have a hard time loving. He even shits his pants on purpose. I'm not kidding. He shits his pants, but keeps a little and as soon as his mother changes, BAM! He goes at it again. What child does that on purpose? It is hinted that Kevin's darker instinct takes from Eva in the mini-golf scene. Kevin seems to do what he does by pure sadism and vengeance against his mother and I don't buy that. Also, I didn't buy the father's behavior (played by John C. Reilly) who obstinately refuses to believe his wife and ultimately causes Kevin to fall off the deep end.
The aesthetics of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN were beautiful, but felt a little aggressive. Needless, at times. The editing, as I mentioned earlier, is very syncopated and therefore keeps the viewer uncomfortable. I suppose it's designed to be so. I have to say the transitions between the reality and Eva's flashbacks were done beautifully. There is always an object Eva focuses on that triggers the flashback and it's both realistic and fits the movie's artistic direction. It was really cool. The symbolism, especially with the color red (paint, blood, tomatoes) is a little heavy handed, but it was an interesting risk to include this in such a movie. The treatment of colors was very intense (sometimes too much), but it gives the movie a unique identity.
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is a complex and layered movie, but it goes in every direction. The characters are caught with difficult inner struggles, but they are lost in all that's going on. The movie is centered on Eva and Tilda Swinton's energetic performance give enough room to her characters, but everybody else seems to be a part of an elaborate acid flashback she's having. The heavy visual nature of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN ultimately works against its narrative and creates a confusing, bloated movie. Too bad, because mass murder is a subject of actuality and it's a story that doesn't point fingers at the usual suspects. That alone called for a more sober adaptation, but it's not what happened.