Down From The Shelf ~ We Need to Talk About Kevin

The Facts:

Synopsis: Kevin’s mother struggles to love her strange child, despite the increasingly vicious things he says and does as he grows up. But Kevin is just getting started, and his final act will be beyond anything anyone imagined.

Stars: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller, Siobhan Fallon

Director: Lynn Ramsay

Rated: R

Running Length: 112 minutes

Random Crew Highlight:  Genny Op – William Hines

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Though it’s not an outright horror film, We Need to Talk About Kevin could easily have earned a place in my upcoming 31 Days to Scare reviews for October.  It’s a downright creepy film that made for an unnerving and uncomfortable watch.  Now that’s not a bad thing because I feel that film should move us in some way…push our buttons…challenge us.  And challenge us it does.  It’s a skillfully made, beautifully acted adaptation of an equally riveting book.

Focusing on the aftermath of a Columbine-esque school rampage, we follow the mother of the young man responsible for a brutal school massacre.  Her life is very different now…gone are some creature comforts; the beautiful home, the fancy car, the high paying job, the security.  She’s now driving a beater of a car made worse by it being vandalized (along with her house) with blood red paint by families/friends of victims who haven’t forgotten her involvement-by-proxy to the killings.

By following a non-linear plot structure the film is able to play with our perception of events, allowing surprises to actually surprise and shocks to actually shock.  There are several key moments where I felt the cinematic rug was pulled out from under me and it’s this constant state of imbalance that should keep you as glued to the film as I was.

Lionel Shriver’s source novel is a disquieting dissection of parenthood that asks questions about the bonds between mother and child.  As written, the novel simply could not have been made into a movie.  In adapting Shirver’s novel for the screen, director Ramsay wisely abandons the narrative told in letter form for one that still keeps Eva (Swinton) at the center of the action.  For a film that takes place at many different points, it’s easy to spot where we are by the little things Ramsay sets up…hairstyles, living situations, work environments, etc.  Though it jumps around a lot it’s never hard to follow or see how it fits in with what we’ve seen so far.  As the film opens we are in the present but soon we shift to the past and then back again and back again still.  Each jump gives us another piece of the puzzle without making any sacrifice of forward momentum.

Swinton herself is all forward momentum.  It’s really a crime she was overlooked (probably in favor of Rooney Mara in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) for an Oscar because her performance here is one of fierce commitment.  Swinton has never shied away from a challenging role and here she plays the conflicted mother with equal parts apathy and empathy.  It’s a fine line that she treads and I’m not sure if another actress could have balanced this ying and yang as well.  From the outset we get the feeling that she probably never wanted to be a mom in the first place, so when her son starts to exhibit sociopathic behavior she wonders if maybe she deserves everything that happens next.

The nature vs. nurture question is a big theme of the film as it examines this mother-son relationship and all its complexities.  Did Kevin pick up at an early age Eva’s indifference to being a mother and punishes her for it?  Or was he simply born bad?  As Kevin grows older, the behavior only worsens until the entire family is on a collision course with Kevin’s master plan.

At first, I wasn’t sure how well Reilly fit into this film.  Not really a match with Swinton, his houndog features and overall rose-colored glasses mentality eventually make sense as we see that how Kevin acts around his dad stands in stark contrast to the hell he puts his mom through.  Miller makes a strong first impression as a truly twisted teen – making him one bad seed but never showing his hand at just how far he’ll go.  Jasper Newell plays the young Kevin with more than a few scenes that gave me the willies.

There have been films made about evil children in the past, The Bad Seed, Orphan, Joshua, The Omen…the lists goes on.  With the exception of the underrated Joshua, most of these films lacked a true sense of reality that kept them safely in the “scary but not really” category.  Where Kevin hits so hard is in its grounded approach to a horrifying subject.  It’s genuinely scary and, while I didn’t lose much sleep over it, it stayed on my mind in the days and weeks that have followed.

As the film starts to spiral toward its conclusion, a sense of real hopelessness starts to take over.  Though it starts as a film with a critical eye on familial structure, it leaves you with a feeling of sadness that may be hard to shake.  Have your favorite “cheer-up” movie on standby or be ready to call your mom to apologize for some of your own bad behavior — though you can be assured that no matter how many curfews you broke or white lies you told nothing could compare to exploits of Kevin.

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