Lynne Ramsay’s bracing, mournful third feature We Need to Talk About Kevin is a psychologically inflected horror tale that lucidly taps into the inexplicable and wholly irrational.
A story of a woman’s grief and moral culpability to a monstrously horrible act, it's anchored by Tilda Swinton’s immaculate and searing performance, the result is intuitively fierce, abrasive and deeply uncomfortable in its implications. Most assertively, it expands on the promise previously shown by the very gifted Scottish filmmaker in her first work since the 2002 Morvern Caller.
Her 1999 debut, Ratcatcher, grounded her immersive and tactile brand of filmmaking and detailed a lyrical feeling for mood, color and emotion. Morvern Caller was couched in a more realistic vein; it also was strikingly accomplished and suggestive as a triumphant showcase of a director’s personality.
The primary cause of her extended inactivity stemmed from her abortive involvement in the adaptation of Alice Sebolt’s novel The Lovely Bones, that collapsed when the company that owned the literary rights was bankrupted. The continuities of the two works are explicit. Like the Sebolt novel and Peter Jackson’s eventual translation, the new work pivots on a profound social and personal violation. Both are about how the past is superimposed over the present, its emotional concerns and preoccupations developed through the survivors who must survey the damage.
Ramsay has adapted (with the writer Rory Stewart Kinnear) the 2003 novel of the same name by American journalist and author Lionel Shiver. Ramsay has fundamentally altered the novel’s epistolary structure by intensely fracturing time and space, jutting back and forth, the equivalent of skipping the needle on an album.
The story is related as a series of overlapping and connecting vignettes, gathered around two damaged figures, Eva (Swinton), a writer and publisher, and her teenaged son (Ezra Miller).
The movie is a reverse Oedipal tale of revenge, anger and neglect. From the opening image of a curtain fluttering from a door ajar, the movie is dominated by images of breakdown and turbulence. In the opening half hour, the style is highly impressionistic. Dreams and nightmares are freely entwined, the alternate sensations are of release and ecstasy, especially sexually, like the early courtship of Eva and her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly) mixed with something far more disturbing and unsettling.
Ramsay’s adaptation hurtles on parallel tracks. In the present, Eva is an X-ray, gaunt, ravaged and wholly withdrawn. Her skin is the color of paste and she is catatonic, moving warily and indecisively. People of order and social privilege, like an older woman who accosts her in the street, pummel her or scream obscenities. She lives in a desultory bungalow in a clearly seedy part of town. One morning she awakes from one of her many benders to find it splattered and defaced with stark red paint.
The past is also unforgiving. From the start, Kevin displays problematic behavior, acting out, willful, stern and uncooperative with his mother. Her impatient, even imperial, manner only worsens the interaction between the two. Her self-involvement is no less off-putting, like a startling moment when negotiating the New York streets with the toddler in a carriage she strands him in close proximity to a construction crew, the sound of the jackhammer rattling and rattling, still unable to drown out the child’s cries.
The family’s move to a suburban paradise, likewise, does not lessen his outbursts. Mother and child remain locked in a series of nasty, brutish fights over power and control. The boy (played in these sections by a frighteningly skilled young actor named Japer Newell) is indolent, untrustworthy and downright cruel, the most unsparing moment when he destroys the carefully arranged patterns and interior work she has labored over intensely. The movie’s subject is not love but its inverse.
“Just because you’re used to something doesn’t mean you like it,” he snarls at her. “You’re used to me.”
In the aftermath of Eva’s most inexplicable act, a moment of stupidity and anger that leads to her own form of brutality and abuse, the boy’s chilling response is the first evidence of his own innate pathology.
Ramsay is a collage artist, aided greatly through the eerie and compelling scope imagery of cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and elliptical editing of Joe Bini. It’s also a very confrontational brand of filmmaking; it is heavy and sometimes solemn, awash in symbolism, especially the Christ-like suffering and fall. Jonny Greenwood, of Radiohead, composed the score. No less than his work with Paul Thomas Anderson on There Will Be Blood, the soundtrack is dense, allusive and annihilating.
Ramsay’s aesthetic emphasizes a kind of dramatic determinism. The foreboding and sense of doom is a constant. As such, the movie is less interesting for what it reveals than the how. She draws on the horizontal space not to underline the possibility but point out something dangerously amiss. Some of the most evocative imagery builds from the sense of enclosure, like a still shot from the rear perspective of a car’s interior, the windshield hammered by rain.
The stabs at humor are not always successful, though jarring all the same, like Eva’s exchange with a couple of proselytizers who turn up at her door to talk about the afterlife. “I’m going straight to hell,” she responds. Ramsay’s emphatic style is certainly bold, but it’s not always satisfying as narrative.
The weakest part of the film is the relationship of the couple. Reilly’s playing is less freewheeling and persuasive than normal. He’s a terrific actor, but the part is underwritten, there’s little, psychologically, sexually or emotionally, that binds them.
Miller gave a similarly bravura turn in Antonio Campos’ superb Afterschool. His Kevin is more elusive and heartbreaking. He’s a Nietzschean psychopath who makes manifest and ugly Kevin’s contempt. The extent and barbarity of his crime is not very surprising when it is finally revealed. It is no less appalling.
Swinton’s turn has its own Method flourishes. It’s exhaustive sometimes, but also eerie and fluid. Swinton is especially good at refusing to make Eva either personal or likeable. It’s a great inside-out performance, captured in mood and tone, the physical exhaustion, and goes from there.
Ramsay has a recurring image, of mother and son, shot in a reverse angle from the point of view of a water tap, the two drawing the beads of water to cleanse their faces. It is the most explicit awareness of the ties that bind the two. Like the movie itself, the two performers get inside you and never let up.