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We Need to Talk About Kevin works as a family drama, an American horror story, and a strong argument for birth control. The Omen’s Damien has nothing on Kevin, a real-world devil child who tortures his mother seemingly even before birth and doesn’t stop, well, ever, at least up to the point when the film ends. That the family has another child, a delightful girl, doesn’t erase the Do Not Procreate message that Scottish writer-director Lynne Ramsay (adapting a novel by Lionel Shriver) firmly lodges in your brain.
A note-perfect Tilda Swinton plays Eva, a globehopping woman who’s happily married to Franklin (John C. Reilly, here as in Carnage not quite fitting the dramatic part) when she becomes pregnant with Kevin. She doesn’t seem all that happy about it, and there’s a suggestion of postpartum depression as well. But when her son is born, Eva gives it her best—even though the baby is colicky (yet calms for Daddy) and grows into a similarly petulant and downright mean toddler (but again, not around Franklin).
Kevin, played by Rock Duer and Jasper Newell throughout the character’s childhood, splatters paint all over a room that Eva has meticulously decorated with maps and souvenirs. He shadows everything she says with “Nyah nyah nyah.” She gets mad; he doesn’t stop. She tries to play nice—“Honey, do you mind if I stop off at the store?”—and that doesn’t get her anywhere, either. At one point, Eva tells the boy through a gritted teeth that “Mommy was happy before little Kevin came along!” When she really reaches the end of her patience, she throws Kevin against a wall (apparently aiming for a changing table), breaking his arm. “The most honest thing you’ve ever done,” says the teenage Kevin (Ezra Miller, magnificent). Meanwhile, he bonds with dad over a play—and later a real archery set, as Eva and Franklin’s marriage deteriorates.
Tragically, no one really talks about Kevin in We Need to Talk About Kevin. It’s not much of a secret that Kevin grows from a child antagonist into a teenage sociopath, on one horrible day using his archery skills to commit a school massacre. Ramsay, who co-wrote the script with newbie Rory Kinnear, doesn’t tell the story linearly; instead it hops back and forth in a way that’s as mesmerizing and haunting as the curtain shown billowing off an open balcony door in the film’s first shot. The movie is awash in implied blood, from Eva’s ecstatic dream of crowd-surfing at Spain’s Tomatina festival—a giant tomato fight, basically—to the reality she wakes up to: her modest house and car splattered with red paint. The town may vilify Kevin after the murders, but they hold Eva accountable as well.
Lending the film its nightmarish, off-kilter quality is the music, chipper-sounding stuff (The Everly Brothers, old-time Americana) that starkly contrasts the onscreen misery. Eva is tightly wound and exasperated before the massacre and a veritable zombie following it, whether she’s at work at a shitty travel agency or visiting Kevin in jail. There’s only a passing reference to what might have been Kevin’s motivation—something about notoriety versus living a boring life—but in the end even he can’t give a reason for his actions. And it’s that shrug of ambivalence, clear in his deadened eyes as well as in his words, that makes Kevin a killer most chilling.