We Need to Talk About Kevin Review

A psychological thriller charting the life of a mother who's dealing with grief and guilt after her teenage son Kevin goes on a killing spree at his high school.

A psychological thriller charting the life of a mother who’s dealing with grief and guilt after her teenage son Kevin goes on a killing spree at his high school.

It is often taken for granted that a mother’s love for their own child is instant and unconditional and in the majority, this is no doubt the case. But what happens when a mother and her new born baby just don’t like each other? This is one of the central questions asked by Lynne Ramsey’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s award winning novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, a haunting psychological drama that examines the effects this can have on both mother and child while also reigniting the age old ‘nature vs. nurture’ debate.

As in Shriver’s novel, it becomes clear early on that teenager Kevin (Ezra Miller) has committed a violent crime at his school. Ramsey’s film intermittently cuts between the fallout of this event and also the build up to it, beginning with free spirited travel writer Eva Katchadourian (Tilda Swinton) and her new husband Franklin (John C Reilly) trading in the urban hipster lifestyle for a home in the suburbs to better raise young Kevin (also played by Rocky Duer and Jasper Newell, as a toddler and 6-8 year old respectively.)

In the flashback sequences, we see that almost immediately after his birth, Eva and Kevin fail to connect. As a baby, he cries so much around her that she even resorts to hanging out near road works just to drown him out. As an infant, he seems to be deliberately toying with Eva, refusing to speak or potty train, even purposefully soiling himself seconds after Eva has changed him. This pushes Eva to the brink, eliciting a violent outburst that lands young Kevin with a broken arm, the details of which Kevin conceals from his father, holding it over Eva in yet another diabolical mind game. Eventually, we see Kevin as an obnoxious teenager, best friends with his dad but still engaged in psychological warfare with his worn down mother.

In the film’s present, we see Eva as a hollow shell of a woman, living alone in a run down bungalow and working a dead end job as a typist. With Kevin in juvenile prison, not only does she have to deal with her own grief surrounding Kevin’s crime, she also has to shoulder the grief of everyone in the neighbourhood who vandalise her home, interfere with her shopping and lash out violently in the street.

All of this comes to a head with Kevin’s horrendous crime, the extent of which becomes apparent in a final cruel revelation that even the most cynical, blood-thirsty viewers will be shocked by. Kevin is undeniably a monster, but was he born that way or was it Eva’s ambivalent approach to parenting that made him that way? This is essentially the film’s key theme and Swinton is pivotal in bringing that to life. In a film that’s light on dialogue, Swinton manages to convey so much pain, frustration, depression and distress through her face and mannerisms alone, her naturally ghostly pallor helping give Eva a haunted look that adds to the films unrelentingly bleak feel.

In the film’s other key role, the children are effectively creepy as a younger Kevin but Ezra Miller is mesmerising, stalking the periphery of the film for the first half before emerging as a smug, sinister nemesis, slyly taunting Eva at every opportunity. The pair have an unsettling chemistry, lending their scenes in prison a bizarre feeling of two long time adversaries, wearily discussing their battles.

The film also has impeccable technical credits, with Ramsey and cinematographer Seam McGarvey creating stunning visuals that later in the film it becomes clear have been foreshadowing the film’s bloody climax. The visuals also aid Ramsey’s choppy editing in creating a disorientating feel for the film, as it jumps back and forth in time.

Though We Need to Talk About Kevin is an intelligent film that boasts a strong cast and is made with exceptional technical skill, it’s not a pleasant watch. Its tone is overwhelmingly pessimistic with not one character having any real hope and it raises many questions that a lot of parents, new and old, will not even want to consider. It is however one of the year’s best and most thought provoking films, worthy of much debate and discussion.