Tilda Swinton said in an interview with Roger Ebert that just about every mother at one point has a twisted nightmare that her child will turn out badly. The child will do something horrible someday, and the fear is that she may be responsible.
Does this sound like a horror story? It kind of is, but “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is more than an art house retread of “The Omen.” It’s a psychological examination of a woman whose life has been changed by motherhood and is now alone with her twisted thoughts.
Swinton plays Eva, a woman who has always seemed disenchanted with being a mom. It’s hard to fully know when her reservations about having a child began because her memories, and the movie’s timeline, are in a shambles. Perhaps at one point in her life she seems happy, when she’s dating her soon to be husband Franklin (John C. Reiley), but at others she’s a struggling parent trying to raise her growing boy Kevin, and at another she’s living on her own, hated by the community and clearly beyond miserable.
It’s Kevin then who is the seemingly obvious problem. As a baby, he screams whenever Eva holds him and is calm when Franklin does. As a toddler, he refuses to play with his mother and later splatters paint all over her office. As a boy (Jasper Newell) and later a teenager (Ezra Miller), he loathes the arrival of his little sister, shuns the advice of his mother and lets his mother know she’s hated by putting up a phony loving façade to his father.
He’s a vicious child with a cold glare whenever he looks at Eva. We always see from Eva’s eyes, and from her view, Kevin has always seemed vindictive. Even at his birth, she seems possessed and fighting a losing battle against a hateful, demon of a child.
But what if we’re wrong? Franklin certainly seems to think Eva is overreacting. Is Kevin developing improperly if he acts out? In one scene, Eva is trying to teach Kevin his numbers. She asks what comes after two, and he shouts 41. Then he rattles off 1 through 50 and asks if they’re done. As Eva gets frustrated with him, he poops in his diaper, waits for Eva to change him, and then does so again. Later we hear him flushing the toilet on his own.
Kevin is learning and growing, but he seems to be doing so out of spite and defiance to his mother. Is this bad behavior, or should Eva be proud regardless of the circumstances? We can’t truly decide who’s in the right.
That’s the intricacy of Director Lynne Ramsay’s screenplay. Because we only see the story from Eva’s perspective, we’re consumed with the possibility that Eva is not all the mother she could be. Maybe Kevin has never received the attention he deserves, and that’s why he acts out so horribly.
Swinton embodies this same nagging doubt in Eva beautifully. Perhaps no actress alive today can be as convincing when constantly caught in a state of perplexed emptiness and delirium. Eva is so devastated and emotionally ruined by Kevin that we pity her so deeply, but we can sense her own slight, seething hatred that everything she sees in Kevin may be her own faults.
Ramsay’s directing plays on these dichotomies as well. Ramsay has ways of framing Eva in front of walls with the aim to diminish her. There’s a compelling shot of her in a grocery store in front of a blood red wall of tomato soup cans. And at other moments, Ramsay’s score or cinematography won’t match in the slightest. It’s her way of showing how nothing in Eva’s existence or head fits. Take the horrific imagery of children in costumes swarming Eva’s car on Halloween. In a strange twist, Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” plays on the radio in the background.
I wondered if a more concrete answer about who was in the right would’ve helped the film, but Ramsay is wise to provide no answers here. There is only doubt and suspicions in these moments of great turmoil. If she were to point fingers directly at Kevin or at Eva, this would turn into a miserable social commentary film.
Rather, each moment of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” has a chilling, exotic feel to it. Watching it can feel delirious and uncomfortable, but it has immense power as a psychological tragedy.