Ramsay's been out of the loop for a while -- she was famously slated to helm Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones before Peter Jackson took the job only to wholeheartedly botch it; her last film was 2002's "Morvern Callar." What "We Need to Talk About Kevin" makes abundantly clear is that her absence is far more our loss than hers. The novel was a series of letters, written by Eva (Swinton) to her husband in the aftermath of Kevin's actions; the film flickers and skips between moments like memory, or a bad dream, and the net effect is both as plainspoken as a death sentence and as impressionistic as color on a stark background.
Swinton is superb, and if there were any doubt she's one of our greatest living actresses, that has now been removed with one swift stroke. We see Eva as a young woman in love, as a young mother in crisis, as an older mother in … denial? Panic? Ignorance? We're shown Eva's flaws and failings as a parent -- but if being an imperfect mother -- tired and frustrated and ambivalent about parenthood -- were enough to make a child a killer, the gutters would be overflowing with blood.
John C. Reilly's work as Eva's husband Franklin is peripheral -- as it should be. Swinton's Eva is the film -- its eyes, its voice and its perspective -- and watching Eva struggle mightily to achieve small victories in the face of colossal losses is immensely affecting. At times, Swinton is pale and clammy with grief and agony; when she smiles, it's with the luminous blur of a dying light bulb. Eva is not perfect; no one knows this with more fervor, or with more reason, than Eva herself.
We'd hesitate to call "We Need to Talk About Kevin" a thriller, but there are moments where we sat riveted and fretful with the slow-wound tension of the moment. We'd hesitate to call it a drama, but it had moments of truth -- as big as agony, as small as a nod of the head -- that clutched at our heart. We'd hesitate to call the film a tragedy, even with classic themes and images nestled among the station wagons and tile hospital corridors, and as Swinton scrubs and scrapes at red paint like Lady Macbeth. We can call "We Need to Talk About Kevin" fascinating, and chilling, and a welcome return for a director who shouldn't have had to be away for as long as she was; Ramsay's look at guilt, loss and shame is the kind of hard, unflinching stuff that gives off sparks of insight and truth each time it strikes hard at your brain and heart. [A]
This is a reprint of our review from Cannes. "We Need To Talk About Kevin" begins rolling out to theaters today following an Oscar qualifying run in December.