Sunday, March 11, 2012

We Need to Talk About Kevin

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller (114 min.)

The notion of an evil offspring, a demonic child, has been studied ad nauseum in the horror genre over the years, reaching all the way back to The Bad Seed and peaking in pictures like Rosemary's Baby and The Omen.  More often than not a supernatural force is behind the evil child.  Sometimes, as in the more recent and underrated Orphan, it is a shocking mental and physical disorder which makes the child in question wicked.  And in all of these films I mentioned, either the mother or both the parents begin the story with love, only arriving at a realization that something is wrong with their sweet child as the events unfold.  But what if the mother didn't want the child to begin with?  And what if there is never an explanation as to why the child is a psychopath?  Those are the two central questions in We Need to Talk About Kevin, a film not dealing in the supernatural realm of the "wicked child" story. 

The events of the picture all exist in a version of the real world.  There are two timelines to follow, a before and an after.  The hinge of these before and after narratives is a traumatic event.  As the film opens we meet Eva (Tilda Swinton), looking for a job at a travel agency and hiding away from the world like a hermit.  She must hide that way because, for whatever reason, she is reviled in the community.  So much so that on the first morning we see her, the front patio of her home is covered in red paint.  The "before" narrative comes to us first in the form of Eva's memories.  She remembers her marriage to Franklin (John C. Reilly) and the good times they had until their son, Kevin, was born. 

Eva did not particularly want a child.  She enjoyed the freedom of traveling the world without boundaries.  Does Kevin realize from birth that Eva does not want him around?  Because there is clearly a line of communication and love not properly functioning between the two.  Kevin screams as a baby when Eva holds him.  As a toddler he will not cooperate, and as he grows into a young adult his rebellion towards his mother turns more and more sinister This teenage version of Kevin pits his father against his mother by cleverly acting one way around Franklin and another around Eva.  The teenage Kevin gets the bulk of the film, and played by Ezra Miller, teen Kevin is devilishly similar in look and frame to Swinton's Eva.  But why in the world is Kevin evil?  Perhaps a baby realizes or understands love growing in the womb, and if that love is absent is it then manifested in the child's disposition?  I am not sure, and neither is the film as it travels along to a horrific climax.

We Need to Talk About Kevin feels a bit confused to me.  It's as if there is a static feed underlying the film all the way through, as questions and answers never meet one another.  Sure, ambiguity is sometimes a key element in film, but not in the ways director Lynne Ramsey approaches things.  Her direction feels too apprehensive or uncertain at times.  The opening act is a muddled work of timelines intersecting that seem unnecessary once the picture settles in to it's central story.  And the climactic scene is, again, handled with ambiguity, as if the camera were too frightened to show what was really happening.  I found myself wanting to peek off the screen to see reactions and events that were just outside the camera's line of sight.

There are elements I do like about We Need to Talk About Kevin, namely the performances from Swinton and Ezra Miller, the teen Kevin.  They have wonderfully awkward moments and great tension that can only be conjured through two solid actors.  The use of red throughout the film fills scenes with a certain unconscious passion that I really loved.  But Reilly's Franklin is already in a tough spot as a character because he plays the naive father who doesn't see the evil side of Kevin no matter how much his wife, whom he is supposed to love and trust, protests.  And even when the evidence begins popping up in little instances throughout Kevin's childhood, Franklin staunchly remains blind deaf and dumb to the monster in his house.  It is a stretch sometimes.  Because if my wife were as nerve-rattled as poor Eva is throughout this film, I might want to consider that my seething, squinting, archer son would have something to do with it.