Everyone knows having kids changes everything. Remember the tender scene in Lost in Translation where Bill Murray informs Scarlett Johansson that, once you do, “Your life as you know it is gone, never to return?” He goes on to wax poetic about the ways children change things for the better and “turn out to be the most delightful people you’ll ever meet.” This is the way it’s supposed to work.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is about what can happen when it doesn’t. Tilda Swinton delivers a raw and riveting performance as a woman whose life is transformed by the experience of motherhood into a waking nightmare. Eva Khatchadourian, we ascertain through flashbacks, was something of a reluctant parent, a successful travel writer not particularly eager to give up globe-trotting for an extended stay in suburbia.
But that’s where she finds herself after marrying her genial boyfriend, Franklin (John C. Reilly), hearing the pitter-patter of little feet and trading her Manhattan loft for a McMansion. In her firstborn’s first months, Eva is unsettled by the sound of his nearly constant crying. What makes the sound particularly unsettling is the eerie fact that the boy wails only in Eva’s presence. In a telling scene, she holds the baby in front of her face and forces a fake smile to assuage him.
It’s a key moment because, the next thing we know, Kevin is 6 or 7 and faking smiles of his own. When they’re alone, he torments his mother in any number of ways. He glares at her demonically. He goes all Jackson Pollock on a room she’s just decorated. He mocks her attempts at toilet training, soiling a fresh diaper just as she’s finished changing a full one. Yet, in the second it takes for the door to open and Franklin to enter the home, Kevin’s expression changes from menacing to cheerful.
Three actors play the boy at different stages. Rock Duer’s a shoo-in if they ever make Satan: The Toddler Years, and Jasper Newell manages to project an aura of pure evil even in pull-ups, but it’s Ezra Miller as the adolescent Kevin who makes you believe you’re in the presence of an American monster. This is one of the past year’s most underpraised performances.
The film is the latest from the gifted Scottish director Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher) and has been adapted from the celebrated novel by Lionel Shriver. Ramsay has scrambled the chronology so as to make clear from the beginning that an atrocity of some sort has been committed at the local high school and that, in its aftermath, Eva has become a psychologically shattered pariah. She spends much of the movie reliving the events that led to her son’s violent act in an effort not only to comprehend it but to determine the degree to which she may have been complicit. You might call it the mother of all guilt trips.
With the possible exception of Melancholia, this is the darkest, most disturbing picture I saw last year. It’s also one of the most masterfully crafted, superbly acted and brilliantly written. Ramsay has few contemporary peers when it comes to conveying a theme or evoking a mood through visuals — a gift that’s become rare in cinema — and We Need to Talk About Kevin offers a feast of striking images. It’s a one-of-a-kind tale of domestic horror. If you appreciate fearless moviemaking that grapples with the modern world’s tougher truths, it’s a film you need to see.