I am not a member of the female sex, nor am I a parent; but if I was a mother, then Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin would’ve been something like my worst nightmares being manifested in front of my eyes in minute detail.
There’s been plenty of debate amongst fans of the horror genre, myself included, in which we wonder whether or not a horror film can transcend its genre. Not necessarily by being “great” horror films, but by being very “different” horror films, in a very specific way. William Peter Blatty famously kept telling critics that his classic, The Exorcist, was “not a horror film” but more of a “theological thriller”; a statement that has often been declared formally as “complete bullshit”. But can a great horror film be more than just a great horror film?
When I posted my year-end list of 2011 a month or so back, I listed my favorite horror film of the year as Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene; a film that isn’t a horror film in the traditional sense, but was able to disturb me and terrify me more effectively than the more genre-heavy titles of the year. It was not only a disquieting look through the eyes of a disturbingly indoctrinated woman, but also a fantastic character study, an astounding showcase of talent for its female lead Elizabeth Olsen, and an artful depiction of a constantly deteriorating state of mind.
And now, one of 2011’s left overs that hasn’t been released in the US until recently, We Need To Talk About Kevin also makes that same argument. Kevin is not only a fantastic horror film featuring one of the most demonically evil children in film history, but also a fantastic character study, an astounding showcase of talent for its female lead Tilda Swinton, and an artful depiction of a constantly deteriorating state of mind. If I could change my top 10 list of 2011 right now just for this film, I would. We Need To Talk About Kevin is disturbing in every way, and is one of the best & most overlooked films of last year.
We Need To Talk About Kevin opens with Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) waking up in a run-down, beaten-up house she has exiled herself into after becoming the most hated woman in her neighborhood. Without spoiling anything, we slowly learn as the film progresses that her son, Kevin (Ezra Miller) has committed a horrible atrocity too vile for words; and as expected of the media, the people of America shift their blame to “bad parenting”, thus leaving Eva broken by the misery of simply setting foot outside and traumatized by the crimes Kevin committed. Through slightly non-chronological flashbacks, we catch various glimpses of Kevin’s life from baby to toddler to child to teenager, while watching Eva slowly become a hollow shell of her former self.
The titular Kevin is portrayed more realistically than your usual demon-seed child of typical horror schlock likeThe Omen, The Good Son, or Orphan. But despite not being possessed by the devil, suffering from mental illness, nor actually being a midget adult that looks like a 12-year-old (Seriously, how exactly does that work,Orphan?), make no mistake about it–Kevin is one of the evilest, most downright hateful little shits you’ll see in a movie in recent memory.
When I said that the film is like a mother’s nightmares come to life, imagine this: You’re a parent, and the one single redeeming factor of your sad pathetic life–your child–has two notable attributes: 1.) He/she is an reflective embodiment of worst traits within you, and 2.) This child has made it his/her mission, practically since being a sperm cell, to make every waking moment of your life miserable by doing nothing but expanding on those hateful traits within you.
As a toddler, he’d soil his pants purposefully just to make his mother angry. As a child, he’d spray the rooms with paint out of sheer amusement, even as a baby he’d be extra sure to make the most shrill and loud wails and screams he can humanly create, and don’t even get me started on the stuff he does as a teenager. I wouldn’t say he’s entirely realistic, since these kinds of movies obviously have to take some liberties with realism, but this is easily the most believable portrayal of an evil child I’ve seen in quite some time, possibly of all time.
One thing that helps with this is that the contrived moments of everyone not talking about Kevin are rare, if even there to begin with. Oh sure, there are some moments where Eva should’ve at the very least seen a psychiatrist, but the reasons for leaving those out are justified. For one thing, everything is seen through a surreal filter since it’s all from Eva’s perspective (A point I’m going to go back to later in the review), and on top of that, how would you be able to tell someone that your child is an evil little bastard who is evil because he reflects the worst aspects of your own personality? Food for thought.
What really sells it are the performances. Kevin is played by three different actors at three different ages, and all of them really bring to life the dastardly nature within the character, specifically Ezra Miller as the teenaged version. Even John C. Reilly as the father, no matter how small his moments are, manages to shine in typical John C. Reilly fashion. But the real standout is Tilda Swinton as Eva. We’ve seen plenty of roles like this before; the mother who must live with the fact that her child could possibly be pure evil, such as Mia Farrow inRosemary’s Baby or for a more recent example, Vera Farmiga in Orphan (And Joshua…apparently, Farmiga likes those demon-seed movies). But never have I sympathized with such a mother’s plight like I did with poor Swinton in Kevin.
Her face is in a perpetual state of shock in this movie, her eyes are consistently tired due to not having felt any real sense of joy for more than 15 years because of her son. It’s a draining performance to be sure, but Swinton really pulls it off. Despite being consistently depressed, she always feels like a real human being. The moments where she tries to hide her hostility towards her son with a phony, false sense of kindness are especially heart-breaking because you can just see the sadness in her eyes as she’s feigning unconditional love.
Tilda Swinton gives one of the best performances I’ve seen all year…or at least of 2011, since us Americans got to see it late. Swinton has always been one of those actresses like Meryl Streep who seems to be consistently amazing with every role she’s in, no matter the movie, so when I tell you that this is one of her best performance of her already dazzling career, this should be a big red flag that you should go see this if only for her wonderful performance.
But it also helps that this is not only a great acting show-case, but a marvelously directed horror/drama. Director Lynn Ramsay is effective at using haunting imagery to convey the psychological disruptions of her characters, and this is no exception. One such shot involving Eva’s house being covered in blood-red paint from pranksters was haunting in its own strange way. When we see Eva attempting to clean the paint off her disheveled home, we are also seeing her trying to wipe away the trauma of her past away.
The atmosphere is also incredibly effective, utilizing this false sense of normalcy that despite looking very clean and proper, seems to be festering some sort of hidden evil from beneath the cracks.
I especially loved how subjective this movie was filmed. It’s interesting to compare both this and Martha Marcy May Marlene back to back. Both films depict the deteriorating state of mind of their respective female roles. But while MMMM was very objective and non-judgemental, everything in We Need To Talk About Kevin is seen entirely through the filter of Tilda Swinton’s perspective, which gives off a more intimate look at her psyche than MMMM did, despite being biased toward one side of the story rather than looking at it on all sides (We never really see anything from the father’s perspective, who Kevin was actually nice towards), but it still manages to work in the film’s favor in really trying to sell you on just how despicable Kevin is.
Now, I must head back to the question I began this review with: Do films like We Need To Talk About Kevinand Martha Marcy May Marlene show a significant evolution of the horror genre. I say absolutely. It’s great to see more horror films more rooted in character development that truly look at the horrors within ourselves rather than supernatural horrors, which has definitely been explored before, but was without a doubt more prominent in recent years than in the past.
Final Verdict: Terrifying, haunting, chilling, traumatizing, and–most importantly of all–believable in its own way, We Need To Talk About Kevin is a masterful blend of horror, drama, and even tragedy that will stay under your skin thanks to its compelling direction from writer/director Lynne Ramsay and absolutely perfect performances from Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller.
That is all.
See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to talk about my sister Alyx. She’s starting to…look at me funny…