In purely pop-culture terms, you could glibly characterize “We Need to Talk About Kevin” as “The Omen” for the art-house crowd.
But that’s undoubtedly trivializing the haunting and deeply unsettling thematic heft of writer-director Lynne Ramsey’s staid but stunningly effective bad-seed drama (drawn from Lionel Shriver’s celebrated novel) that features yet another utterly naked and fiercely compelling performance by the great Tilda Swinton (Oscar winner for 2008’s “Michael Clayton”).
Where 1976’s “The Omen,” starring Gregory Peck and Lee Remick, put a Hollywood gloss on the biblical pulp of its grandiose, Antichrist child story, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” plays more like a gritty, realistic domestic horror tale that feeds on the fears of so many parents in this paranoid, post-Columbine era.
Although Ramsey’s film is painted in oppressive tones of black and gray, and there’s never really any doubt that the infant-toddler-tyke-teen at its core, the titular Kevin, is a devious, dark-eyed devil child, Ramsey manages to render the picture as a brooding, brilliant portrait of desperate parenthood and a mother’s dogged, unconditional love. It’s a movie infused with such an understated sense of dread and dire inevitability that you’re bound to find yourself both riveted and cringing from moment to moment.
That’s due in large part to the brilliantly calibrated performance of Swinton as Eva Khatchadourian, a successful travel agent and wife of good-natured construction contractor, Franklin (John C. Reilly, aptly earnest but clueless).
In prologue, we first meet Eva as an adventurous free spirit, giving herself over to the lavish – and visually spectacular – abandon of Spain’s tomato-throwing La Tomatina Festival.
As we leap forward in the jigsaw-puzzle narrative, we see a very different Eva, haggard, sallow and guilt-ridden as she emerges from her tatty rental house to find her front porch and car splattered with red paint – a hateful scarlet-letter message from neighborhood vigilantes.
In between, Ramsey and co-writer Rory Kinnear offer up shards of narrative in which Eva and Franklin marry and start a family. Yet, even in pregnancy, Eva seems oddly disengaged. And with the arrival of baby Kevin (an incessantly bawling bundle), Eva’s maternal instincts seem detached and forced.
And things just get worse as Kevin grows – played as a toddler by Rocky Duer, as a little boy by Jasper Newell and as a surly, cunning, disrespectful teen by a deeply disquieting Ezra Miller.
As we see incident after incident of Kevin waging a nihilistic battle of wills with his cowed mother – while smarmily duping his gullible father and menacing his cute, chipper little sister Celia (Ashley Garasimovich) – it’s painfully obvious that all this is going to end tragically (especially when Kevin shows a dead-eyed aptitude for archery).
While Ramsey stages the bloody tragedy at the core of the film in glancing scenes, it’s in Swinton’s stripped-bare performance as the mother struggling to come to grips with her guilt, her ambiguity toward her troubled child and her deep-seeded questions about nature and nurture that we bear the full brunt of the story’s tragic consequences. In her hollow eyes and skeletal countenance we see the worst nightmare of parenthood embodied and absorb the full, stark impact of irony in the title “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”
- Dennis King