Eva Khatchadorian (Tilda Swinton) wakes up from a drunken stupor in her broken down mess of a house. When she leaves, she realizes neighborhood vandals have sprayed the front of the little house and her old Mercedes wagon with thick red paint. Across the street, a boy sits on his bike, watching. She gets into the car and drives away, the windshield wipers working overtime to push the paint out of the way, eager to get to her job interview at a run down travel agency. Wanda (Siobhan Fallon) looks at her resume and says, "I don't care what you may have done. If you can handle the job, it's yours." This seems to be the one bright spot in her current life, the one moment of hope and Eva manages to smile. When she returns home, the memories of her life begin to flood back before she is able to drown them out with wine. Many years earlier, she and her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly) live in a New York loft and enjoy the city life. They are also very happy. The Eva becomes pregnant and everything changes. When Kevin is born, it quickly becomes clear he has some problems; he can barely sit up, he wears diapers until he is six or seven, he lashes out at his mother and is sweet as pie with his father. Eventually, they move to the 'burbs (against Eva's wishes) and Eva turns to her adventure travel business as an escape. As Kevin grows into a teenager, the test of wills between he and his mother intensifies. Franklin brings home a bow and arrow set for his son and this seems to be the one thing the young boy has any passion for. Kevin practices and practices and eventually uses his skill in a way that will destroy the lives of everyone around him.
Written and directed by Lynne Ramsay ("Ratcatcher", "Movern Caller"), "We Need To Talk About Kevin" has a lot of good going for it. But a couple of off-key moments and an ongoing problem really make the film falter.
Tilda Swinton is always interesting and always good. In 2001, she starred in an independent film called "The Deep End", playing a mother who has to deal with the emotional wake of her son's life. A few years later, she appeared in "Young Adam", playing a sexually explicit role opposite Ewan McGregor. These two films were both very good, but since then, the majority of her work has been as a co-star in major Hollywood films. Don't get me wrong. All of her performances have helped to elevate these films, "Adaptation", "Burn After Reading", "Michael Clayton", "The Chronicles of Narnia", all big budget films with star-studded casts, all of which are more interesting because Swinton is in them.
In "Kevin", she gives us another rich, multi-faceted, pitch perfect performance. Beginning towards the end of the story, Eva is a very unhappy woman. She lives in a run-down messy house and regularly falls asleep on the couch after a frozen dinner and some wine. But this is all she has, so when she sees the red paint covering the front of her house, she spends a lot of time scraping and sanding, trying to remove the offending graffiti. And she seems to sleepwalk through her days, so when she gets the job, she has something new to distract her thoughts. When she goes shopping and spots someone she recognizes, she runs and hides. These moments are quiet and telling, but they also trigger a memory and we learn about another segment of her earlier life, filling in the back-story.
Some of these flashbacks lead to her early-married life, as she and Franklin enjoy their freedom in the big city because they are independent, able to do what they want when they want. Then she gets pregnant and everything changes. The pregnancy is very difficult for her and you can see the growing resentment within her. Why can't her life continue as normal?
John C. Reilly plays Franklin, Eva's husband and Kevin's dad. He provides a nice counterpoint to Eva's intensity. He seems blissfully unaware of his wife's ongoing problems and of his son's machinations.
As the film jumps around, we watch as Kevin moves from child to teenager. He is a developmentally challenged boy; he can't really sit up straight, he doesn't speak or take to potty training until very late. And this frustrates Eva. As she is home every day, all day, it seems like she takes this very personally, as though Kevin is doing these things to purposefully test her. She thinks her son creates these problems. And as he grows up, they seem more and more purposeful.
And she realizes her son is acting in this way to make her upset. The frustration grows and grows and eventually becomes resentment. Her care extends so far because she has to, but she doesn't love her son and he quickly realizes this.
As Kevin becomes older, and more aware, he becomes more and more skilled at manipulating Eva, his father and his baby sister to get the results he desires. A lot of this seems to stem from Kevin's awareness that his mother doesn't love him.
Kevin, the teenager, is seriously screwed up and Ezra Miller portrays the character with an almost constant half grin. What makes the performance work is that often there is a real sense of disgust or loathing barely contained behind that half grin. He seems to view his life as a cat and mouse game. How far can he push Eva? How much can he get away with and escape his Dad's eyes? Given the nature of his character, his performance is unexpectedly low key and disturbing.
The performances in the film are universally good, especially Swinton. Because she is in the entire film and has a lot of material to work with, she should be the most interesting. As she deals with the challenges of her son, we watch how these initial interactions help to develop both of them later in their lives. It is an award-worthy performance, but I expect Swinton escaped the Award's radar because of the film's extremely dark subject matter.
The film just drips with overt iconography. Eva is a travel writer and the film opens with her at a Tomato Festival in Italy. The streets are lined with people wallowing in tomatoes, and Eva is covered with the fruit's red pulp. Later, teenaged Kevin takes to wearing a white t-shirt with a spray of cranberries down the front. He seems intent on wearing it even though it appears too small. The cranberries and tomatoes resemble… Oh, you know.
These are the two most overt examples, but each is repeated many times. And you begin to see types of things everywhere. Because this is so heavy handed, it makes the overall film seem amateurish.
Given the overt iconography, the actual act Kevin is guilty of is handled in an unexpected way. It is almost tastefully done and impressionistic.
And Franklin just seems too unaware of what is going on. Franklin is never around and when he is, he is blissfully unaware of both Kevin and Eva's problems. "Kevin" tries to present an even, yet complicated portrait of a dysfunctional family. And it succeeds to a certain extent by having it both ways. This is fairly unique, and would never happen in a studio film, but it muddles the film a little bit. So, it is good, to a certain extent, but many of the things that make it good and unique, also make it seem muddled and unfocused.
"We Need To Talk About Kevin" is worth a bargain matinee or DVD rental. Tilda Swinton is great and her performance alone is worthy of your time and money.