Sometimes directors and actors work at cross purposes, causing a film to be disjointed and aimless, regardless of a clever scene here or a good performance there. Unfortunately, such cross purposes plague We Need to Talk About Kevin and are likely responsible for much of its failure as a film.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a celebrated psychological horror drama that follows Eva Khatachadourian, a reluctant mother, as she deals with her demon-seed son Kevin and the aftermath of his horrific actions at school.
The film has no fixed timeline and jumps around to moments before and after Kevin’s crimes with no discernible pattern. The sequencing of events merely reflects Eva’s fragile mental state. She is as much consumed by the horrors of Kevin’s childhood and her failure as a mother in the past as she is by the aftermath of his crimes she deals with in the present.
Tilda Swinton, the pale, androgynous actress known for her roles in The Chronicles of Narnia and Michael Clayton, plays Eva. Swinton is a fascinating actress; she carries this film and gives an impressive performance despite its failings. This is because We Need to Talk About Kevin is most interesting in its exploration of Eva’s depression and hatred for her child, Kevin.
Eva never wanted to have a child and from the early moments when baby Kevin refuses to stop crying, we realize she hates the kid. In one hilarious scene, Eva is out with Kevin in his stroller and takes a break beside a jackhammer in the streets of New York City, basking in the machine’s loud noise as it drowns out her child’s wails. The scene is extremely honest, but little touches like this are few and far between and can’t save the film from its glaring tonal mistakes.
One major error is that director Lynne Ramsay seems to think this is a horror film. She makes the film impressionistic and fills it with stylistic flourishes. It’s as if she intends to pummel the audience into terror through exaggeration and the relentlessly depressing tone of everything occurring onscreen.
While Tilda Swinton plays the character as though she’s in a psychological drama about a mother dealing with the devastating consequences of her son’s horrific actions, Ramsay does the subject matter an injustice and mistakenly gives it a horror genre treatment. Swinton mines a fascinating situation and explores the question of whether parents have any responsibility in the actions of their children. Unfortunately, Ramsay doesn’t seem at all interested in actually exploring this question. She’s too interested in her stylistic touches.
For example, everything in the film is splattered with red — red blood, red sandwich jelly, red paint, red tomatoes, red lamps, red chairs, red cans in a grocery store. Everywhere Eva goes, she is surrounded by red. This is meant as a way to skewer the perception of the events; we are supposed to be seeing everything as Eva sees it, and because she is fixated on the blood her son spilled, everything gets a red tinge. However, instead of its desired effect, the oversaturation of red just becomes a running gag. Ramsay intended horror and instead produced camp.
In another scene, Eva is terrorized by children in Halloween costumes on her way home from work, and all the while Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” plays on the car radio. This is meant to be terrifying but is instead laughable. In almost every scene involving other people, the townsfolk just stare at Eva as though they are characters out of Village of the Damned. There’s nothing wrong with these tropes in genre movies, but not in this context.
In essence, Ramsay is playing camp horror seriously and the result is a film that is repetitive and preposterous.
Perhaps the film’s biggest sin is that Kevin is a B-movie villain. Instead of a complex portrait of a sociopathic child, he is merely a demon seed. He is evil from the moment he is born and no action of his makes us question that designation. This would be fine for a genre film, but for something exploring such challenging subject matter, it is reductive and a little offensive, as if it were explaining away Columbine by saying the killers were merely “bad seeds.”
Exploring whether Eva is at all responsible for Kevin’s development becomes a lost cause. There was never any chance for Eva to teach Kevin to be good since he’s pure evil from the get-go, and her obsessing over her own responsibility is fruitless.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a film that had potential, but the dissonance between the subject matter and the execution leads to a disastrous outcome. There is nothing wrong with making a film exploring an absolutely evil individual, but don’t use that individual to explain away complex and challenging subject matter that is rooted in real life. The evil acts that occur in real life can never be so easily explained away by the conventions of the horror movie genre.