If only there were a better way to say “billowing curtains.” That phrase barely scratches the essence of the first image of Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” which is a prelude to hell.
The curtains, set to the sound of a sputtering lawn sprinkler, reveal an orgy of bodies writhing in tomato guts, hoisting up a woman as oblation. Her face twists from ecstasy into fear. That woman is Eva Katchadourian (Tilda Swinton), a once travel writer and bohemian caught in a maelstrom of guilt after her teenage son Kevin (Ezra Miller) does something so atrocious that it grabs the nation’s attention, turning his mother into a pariah. But how complicit was Eva in the evil-doing of her son?
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” is the kind of beautifully ugly arthouse horror movie that sends you out of the theater, unsteadily, in search of the nearest bar. It’s a movie to make you feel dirty and lost. But in spite of the film’s grave seriousness, Ramsay’s imaginative form becomes the saving grace of her grim content.
Like the demonic doppelganger of “The Tree of Life,” the film begins as a breathless montage. We see Eva today, drugged-up in a shit-shack of a house, bleary-eyed and traumatized. Then there’s Eva of yesteryear, hair long, reveling in the rain with her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly). They decide to have a baby. “You sure about this?” he asks her. A dull tone of dread, crafted by composer Jonny Greenwood, courses through these happy memories, terrorizing the banal and priming us for an expressionistic nightmare.
Based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, “Kevin” is all about Tilda Swinton’s face, her ability to capsulize ineffable emotions in a look of horror or a blank stare. The gut-sucking power of this film rests on her brittle and masterful performance as Eva.
Here’s a mother who probably never loved her own son. “Mommy wakes up every morning and wishes she was in France,” she tells him. Eva’s life is wrecked by Kevin from birth. Ramsay, alongside screenwriter Rory Kinnear, stages the question of nature or nurture. In the case of Kevin, it’s both. Played by three different actors at different stages in his childhood, Kevin gobbles up every part of Eva. He chokes her freedom, defies her every word and even destroys the little room she makes for herself in their stuffy suburban home. At one point, she breaks his arm, but this only enables the little beast. Franklin, the kind of all-American guy who gives noogies and says things like “boys will be boys,” is oblivious to it all. Out of desperation, or perhaps out of the need to defeat Kevin, Eva decides to have another child, a girl. Mistake.
A blood-specked collage of memories-within-memories and lurid set pieces, the film brilliantly achieves a syncopated rhythm, as motifs such as that spluttering sprinkler or the color red recur and evolve like a living organism. The dehumanizing pulse of a copy machine punctuates a close-up of cells dividing and copying, conquering Eva’s body. Through editing and sound design, “Kevin” oozes hyperbolic symbolism. If literature can do this, why not cinema?
Powered by Ramsay’s never-objective camera, the film’s suggestive logic is that children are evil, marriage is evil, the suburbs are evil. This is the world according to Eva. The film is perched inside her mind, overlooking the debris of a disjointed psyche and examining the gross distortions at play in the recollections of a woman scorned and scornful, Medea and martyr. Never are we allowed to see Kevin as a being unto himself, but that’s because Eva never sees him that way, either. He is a being unto her, the poison she spawned. If that evil is in him, then isn’t it in her, too?
Ironically, no one talks about Kevin in “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” Even if Eva had tried, who would’ve listened? This is Shriver and Ramsay’s point, that the repressed darkness tucked in the family nest stays that way because we are blind to anomalies like Kevin. He’s what gets born if we don’t start talking.
Ryan Lattanzio is the lead film critic.