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Sowing the Bad Seed

We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

Nicole Rivelli/Oscilloscope Laboratories

For many mothers, their primal, taboo fear is that the children they give birth to will be something unrecognizable, something they cannot control, maybe even something evil. “Rosemary’s Baby,” which was based on a hugely successful novel, took this fear to the extreme. But now there is the only slightly less extreme “We Need to Talk About Kevin” — also based on a novel — and coming to our screens with the same level of horrified anticipation.

The main event in the story is very well known, so it’s not (thought it probably should be) a spoiler to reveal that shortly before his 16th birthday, Eva Katchadourian’s (Tilda Swinton) son, Kevin (Ezra Miller as a teenager, Jasper Newell as a six-year-old and Rocky Duer as a toddler), kills several classmates in a bow-and-arrow shooting spree at his school. But the movie’s concern is Eva’s involvement in Kevin’s crime. Did Kevin become a murderer because of her parenting? Or was it so hard for her to love him because he was such a difficult child? This nature-vs.-nuture argument is what gives the story its power; and Ms. Swinton does an excellent job portraying a woman ambivalent to the bone about her little boy. From infancy, she is frustrated at her inability to love him as easily as her husband, Franklin, (John C. Reilly) does. Then again, he never lights up when she walks into a room. Mr. Reilly is the perfect actor for the part of a fundamentally decent — if slightly bewildered — man whom everyone takes so for granted that he gets kind of ignored. All three actors playing Kevin are very good; and Mr. Miller especially is willing to go to the wall to show his articulate, all-encompassing rage. The movie will be a huge success simply because of the opportunity it offers for psychoanalysis.

The adaptation by Lynne Ramsay and Rory Stewart Kinnear of Lionel Shriver’s award-winning novel does not always make this easy. There is no real sense of Eva and Franklin’s relationship with each other before or after they become parents. It’s also not really clear where they get the money for their huge suburban house, or what Eva did before she became a mother. Kevin is briefly shown looking at a book Eva wrote; and her African masks and rare maps are some of her most precious possessions. The yellowing maps are a focus of the heavy-handed production design by Judy Becker and set decoration by Heather Loeffler, which uses a color scheme based on Kevin’s archery bull’s-eye to indicate Eva’s moods. The color red is used as a menacing motif — as in the already-famous still of Ms. Swinton in front of the tomato-soup cans — but then is so overdone that it becomes slightly kitsch. Ketchup, red wine, red paint, red lamps, red plastic toys, red tinsel, red shirts, red slippers, blood. Imagine “The Godfather,” in which there was an orange or someone juggling oranges in every single scene. It is relentless, punishing and a little bit ridiculous. Just once, couldn’t Eva have drunk a bottle of chardonnay? Or maybe even a beer?

Ms. Ramsay’s previous movie was the excellent “Morvern Callar,” also adapted from a novel. In that movie, a young woman played by Samantha Morton wakes up to discover her boyfriend has killed himself, leaving her instructions on how to pay for his funeral and his novel that he wants to publish. Instead Morvern disposes of his body, claims authorship of the novel for herself and takes her best friend on vacation with the funeral money. In other words, she does not accept any of the responsibilities he has dumped on her. “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is about a woman who goes the other way. Eva takes too much responsibility for her son’s choices. Did he kill those people because of her? Certainly everyone else thinks it’s her fault — she is physically attacked in the street, sworn at by work colleagues and her house is splattered with red paint. But she acts as if she deserves this. Eva and Morvern make a fascinating contrasting pair of dazed and traumatized women, both alone in an aggressive, uncaring world. Ms. Swinton is as good as Ms. Morton at indicating mood and feelings through facial expressions alone; and the moments when Ms. Swinton is struggling with her emotions are the finest in the film. But “Morvern Callar” was a subtler, less stylized movie, and much stronger for that.

Perhaps that’s because Ms. Ramsay is Scottish, so “Morvern Callar” was a story about her home turf, while “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is aggressively American. In fact, so aggressively American that its only two moments of human kindness involve the movie’s only two black people. It is disappointing to see such lazy stereotypes in a movie which otherwise tries hard to deal in the specifics of this one family, of this mother and her son and of the terrible consequences of their relationship. When Eva is scraping paint off a windowpane with a razor blade, Ms. Swinton makes her come across almost as if she is enjoying her suffering. It’s been a long time since a movie has given us so much to talk about.


Opens on Oct. 21 in the United Kingdom and on Dec. 9 in New York.  

Directed by Lynne Ramsay; written by Ms. Ramsay and Rory Stewart Kinnear, based on the novel by Lionel Shriver; director of photography, Seamus McGarvey; edited by Joe Bini; music by Jonny Greenwood; production design by Judy Becker; costumes by Catherine George; produced by Luc Roeg, Jennifer Fox and Robert Salerno; released by Artificial Eye (United Kingdom) and Oscilloscope Laboratories (United States). Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes. This film is rated 15 by B.B.F.C. and R by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Tilda Swinton (Eva), John C. Reilly (Franklin), Rock Duer (toddler Kevin), Jasper Newell (elementary-school Kevin) and Ezra Miller (teenage Kevin).


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