We Need to Talk About Kevin Review
As the mother of a child shown or at least perceived to be rotten virtually from birth, Tilda Swinton is given the task of holding together We Need to Talk About Kevin. Her character Eva, an adventurous traveler and author based in Manhattan, provides something of a first person perspective for the events seen in the film. Everything is shown as far as it relates to her and through the rather withdrawn, frustrated way she reacts. After Kevin, now a teenager, commits an unspeakably horrific act of violence, the weight of it all sits with Swinton. She must adjust and dutifully suffer the consequences. It lends the film, which at times suffers from an air of inevitability, the kind of emotional and behavioral ambiguity needed to keep the viewer interested through what can be some highly fatiguing moments.
The narrative is presented as fractured, jumping around in an approach that seems to be as potentially confusing as it is anything else, but basically divides Eva's present situation against scenes from Kevin's childhood. A few moments from Eva's relationship with her husband Franklin (played by John C. Reilly) prior to the birth of Kevin offer brief excuses to show her in a different, less tense light. The more persistent depiction of Eva is one of utter defeat. She can't handle Kevin, who seems to constantly manipulate and outsmart her, and her husband shows no concern. Indeed, one of the film's more frustrating strokes is its insistence on having Reilly be so oblivious to the reality that his son is a sociopath. This really only makes any sort of sense when considered next to the idea that everything we see is from the perception of Swinton's Eva. Similarly, the cool, annoying evil of Kevin is far too one-note in its depiction to resemble much reality beyond the pervasive guilt being felt by his mother.
Director Lynne Ramsay, here making her third feature after the impressive Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar, has never shown an interest in the easy or sympathetic protagonist. Kevin is consistent with her previous pictures in that it deals with tragedy but from an angle minus either sympathy or empathy. Also generally missing is subtlety. Ramsay here soaks the film in red. It's easily one of the more obnoxious and unimaginative stylistic tricks available to a director yet here it's used so bluntly as to perhaps support the feeling that Kevin is far more of a psychological portrait of a tormented mother than the story of an evil teenager. Author Lionel Shriver, on whose novel the film is based, says in a brief interview included on the disc that part of her inspiration in writing the story was the idea of whether she wanted to ever have a child, and it's from that apprehensive mindset which the movie version seems to best function; a potentially worst case scenario, if you will.
In all three of her features, Ramsay shows a real mastery for the visual part of the medium, if still an unabashed willingness to borrow from her influences. She continues to be one of the more interesting and exciting directors working today, of whom much should be anticipated and whose professional hiatuses ideally will become shorter. Kevin is full of striking compositions and evocative shots. The only real hesitation while watching comes from Ramsay's nagging lack of maturity in the sense that she still doesn't quite know when to be content with subtlety over obviating. Points are too often rammed home, unmistakable to the halfway observant viewer, rather than allowed to be gleaned more organically. Even if the red paint, red jelly and red tomatoes can all be forgiven, the frequent cleaning and scrubbing by Swinton's Eva quickly becomes a little too on the nose.
Related though also worth questioning in the general sense is the overall portrayal of Kevin as not just a monster but a one-dimensional embodiment of pure time bomb terror. The actors who play him as a child, while convincing, lack any sense of mystery. Ezra Miller, picking up the role about halfway into the film, seems to follow his predecessors' leads rather than trying to establish something beyond the character's actions. There's a moment, a potentially promising development which then goes unexplored any further, where Swinton is watching her imprisoned son on television as he speaks of the desire for the masses to now watch and pay attention to what he says. It's true that people watch, some of them in car crash mode to be sure. Many just want some insight into what kind of person could commit such an awful act. The film's inability or unwillingness to paint its central source of shock value beyond even the broadest of strokes seems like a tangible flaw.
Though the extent of Kevin's actions remain uncertain during the course of the film, both his culpability and the seriousness of such become obvious quite soon. Strong hints indicate he did something terrible. His character from start to finish is so reprehensible as to suggest nothing would be out of the question. The film finally makes clear the crime, though thankfully not in great detail. If we're trying to read it as Eva's story more than Kevin's, the build-up is somewhat unhelpful. In a way, it hardly matters just what Kevin did, only that he did it. Eva's resulting fall is cause enough for the depiction of her world as now being in such turmoil. The way Tilda Swinton embodies Eva as a flawed, guilt-ridden shell of her once-successful self is what ultimately makes the picture. Evil in youth and the accompanying actions create the headlines, but it's really the mother character who commands the most attention here.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is released in a region-free set containing both Blu-ray and DVD by the fine American distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories. Each disc is dual-layered. The film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival about one year ago and was put out earlier in the UK by Artificial Eye. This edition from Oscilloscope is packaged in the label's usual environmentally friendly all-cardboard style. There's apparently a slipcover of some sorts on the retail release, using the cover image seen on most every internet site, but it's the purplish art on display at the top of this review which adorns the actual box.
The film is presented in its proper 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Colors, especially those bright reds, appear true, with excellent levels of detail. Natural grain is present, though not what would be considered prominent. Shot primarily on film, We Need to Talk About Kevin has been transferred very well indeed to the digital format. There are no instances of manipulation or undue tinkering at play here. This simply looks like a recently made picture given a more than competent rendering in high definition.
Audio options include an English PCM 2.0 track as well as the default English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 offering. Sound is relied on somewhat heavily in the film so the addition of the surround channels seems to noticeably heighten the viewing and listening experience. The score was done by Jonny Greenwood, and while not anywhere near as inescapable as his work on There Will Be Blood, the instrumentation registers as often unsettling and ominous. This mood-capturing is then juxtaposed prominently by the repeated use of fifties country songs. Dialogue arrives consistently without issue and at a satisfactory volume. There are optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired. They are white in color.
The extra features provided by Oscilloscope are nice, though perhaps not quite extensive. "Behind the Scenes of Kevin" (27:05) is better than the standard making-of piece. It has interviews with the cast and crew and serves to explain a little of the intentions behind some of their choices. There's extra footage (4:15) of Tilda Swinton, without sound and in slightly slower than normal motion, from the "La Tomatina" tomato festival in Spain. Swinton then gets the spotlight at the Telluride Film Festival with "In Conversation" (17:57), a sit-down interview during her tribute in September of 2011. It doesn't really concern this particular film but she does make for an interesting subject to listen to. Also included is a brief interview (3:58) with the source novel's author Lionel Shriver, which was taken from what appears to be a red carpet sort of thing in London.
Oscilloscope has included the film's original theatrical trailer (1:45) as well as previews for other titles released by the label, including Kisses, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Bellflower and Rebirth. A two-minute compilation of various O-scope releases begins automatically upon inserting the disc.
Finishing things off, psychoanalyst Mark Stafford has written an essay on violence and evil and the film's depiction of such which can be found on one section of the cardboard digipak.