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Review: Lynne Ramsay's 'We Need To Talk About Kevin' Is Bleak, But Haunting

Reviews
by James Rocchi
January 13, 2012 2:19 PM
8 Comments
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Guilt, Shame & So Much Blood Pervade Ramsay's Unflinching Drama

We Need To Talk About Kevin

"We Need to Talk About Kevin" is one of the most beautifully bleak psychological fake-outs the cinema's given us in years, as Lynne Ramsay ("Ratcatcher," "Morvern Callar") directs an adaptation of Lionel Shriver's 2003 novel. At first blush, Ramsay's film would appear to be a look into the genesis and reasons behind the title teen's killing spree; the film we get is something different entirely, an exploration of loss and pain and grief through the eyes of the mother (Tilda Swinton) left shattered and battered in the wake of her son's irrational, irredeemable actions.

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.

We Need To Talk About Kevin

The formalist construction here is a thing of wonder -- there's a brute splash or slash of red in so many scenes that you think Ramsay must be joking, and then she throws in a brief nod to assure you that she is (watch carefully in the grocery store) and then continues so that it is clear she is not. Jonny Greenwood's muted score mixes with blues and pop numbers, some too-on-the-nose and some not. The sonic collage of the film -- suburban sprinklers hissing and ticking like coiled vipers, far-away sirens and up-close whispers -- also works to establish mood and tone with real and rich effect.

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.

We Need To Talk About Kevin

Rather, the script (by Ramsay and collaborator Rory Kinnear) and Ezra Miller's work as the teen Kevin (aided by Rock Duer and Jasper Newell as the toddler-aged and childhood Kevins) make it clear that Kevin is a manipulative monster, a sneering sociopath, and that looking for reasons would be, at best, folly; Kevin is one of those people where, bluntly, the machinery came off the assembly line already broken. Some of Kevin's plots and stratagems will seem almost ridiculous -- and they are -- but at the same time, anything less would offer the film, and the audience, and the characters, an easy series of outs. In "We Need to Talk About Kevin," you gaze into the abyss and it can't even be bothered to make eye contact with you.

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.

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8 Comments

  • Mark Gutteridge | January 30, 2012 11:57 AMReply

    See the short that accompanied We Need To Talk About Kevin UK release here: http://vimeo.com/28242781
    curzoncinemas.com/library/films/2154/assessment/

  • Fred | January 30, 2012 1:04 PM

    Link don't work. What short? From Ramsay?

  • RoboCop | January 13, 2012 4:22 PMReply

    And yet here we are toasting to Meryl Streep and Glenn Close who don't give half as great of a performance as Swinton. Williams' is worthy of recognition and so is Charlize Theron but the best actress race is frustrating.

  • Chris | January 13, 2012 2:34 PMReply

    James, I appreciate your well-written review, but I find it strange that you fail to realize (or at least fail to mention) that the movie is in fact a pitch-black comedy. In fact, it's one of the looniest, most self-aware comedies I've seen in years. I don't mean that as an insult; I quite liked the film as well. But I've found many people misunderstanding it as something of a harrowing drama, which it's not.

  • Donny Duke | January 13, 2012 1:23 AMReply

    Looks Even Grimmer

    She saw me lookin’ at ‘er.
    She gave it a son.
    I’m saving a life.
    Hello?
    You call it stupid.
    The eye of change,
    I start baby.
    I learned it in a Vietnam.
    I’ve done some damage.
    Empath,
    That’s the menu.
    Nobody’s exempt
    From receiving empathy.
    I’m gettin’ outta here.
    That’s the immaculate Nazi hunter.

    We’ve had enough of humans right now.
    I’m talkin’ to you.
    Is this medicated?
    Talkin’ to him,
    Talkin’.
    Like a growing monster
    In your opinion.
    Whadda we do?
    Usin’ our heads
    Not our hearts
    Cull the kid.
    That’s important
    They get identified.

    I’m just
    Kinda absolutely
    Talkin’ about
    Kevin,
    The filmmaker’s son.
    Do movies impregnate?
    Splendid,
    At least it’s understood
    We’re dealin’ with inhuman beings.
    Makes them easier to kill.
    Kill ‘im Carl.
    If you say so.
    At the movies.

  • James | December 8, 2011 1:44 PMReply

    Exceptionally well-written review of a brilliant film. I saw it a few weeks back and your review really conveys everything that is amazing about the film without once lapsing into plot summary or meaningless speechifying, which 99% of reviews at other outlets do. You guys and EMPIRE magazine always have the best film reviews.

  • Andrew Willis | December 8, 2011 12:12 PMReply

    Wonderfully written review. This film was off my radar until I saw the trailer last week. Now it has moved towards the top of my "Must See" list. Your review bumped it even higher now. Thanks.

  • Matt | December 8, 2011 11:02 AMReply

    Nice review. FYI, the main character's name is Eva, not Eve.

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