JANUARY 21, 2012
Much like The Skin I Live In, I got interested in We Need To Talk About Kevin when I started seeing it near the top of several "Best of 2011" lists. The thing was, these were horror-centric lists, and until that point I knew nothing about the movie except for its cast. Forgive my ignorance, but if I hear about a critically adored movie with Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly, I'm going to assume it's awards bait and thus nothing I'd ever be interested in seeing (life's too short to watch a movie that exists primarily to win awards). So I looked into it, and discovered it was actually a killer kid movie! Sold!
Now, this is not a killer kid movie in the traditional sense. There's nothing exploitative or "fun" about it, like Orphan or Good Son; in fact unless I'm mistaken (inverse spoiler) there isn't a single moment of actual on-screen violence - even an attack on a dozen innocent eggs is left to our imagination. The closest thing I would compare it to in the genre would be Joshua, which interestingly enough was the current subject of a documentary that I was editing (about under-seen horror movies) prior to leaving for the theater*. Like that film, we stay with a parent more often than not, with the kid's evil behavior kept ambiguous, even though there is no doubt that he's got some severe issues.
But while Joshua stuck with the dad more often than not, Kevin is all about mom (Swinton), who appears in all but one (brief) scene in the film. And she is terrific, nailing the nearly impossible task of playing a mother who is torn between her unconditional love for her child and the fact that he has torn her entire life asunder. The story unfolds via flashbacks, jumping back and forth between the present day, where Swinton is working as a receptionist at a travel agency and living in a tiny house by the railroad, and the past, where we see Kevin at different stages in his life, building toward a truly devastating tragedy where Kevin's disturbing behavior can no longer be chalked up to her suspicions.
As with most killer kid films, one parent is oblivious, so it's a stroke of genius to cast John C. Reilly, who excels at playing guys that are innocently ignorant of their surroundings (his turn in The Good Girl was similar - he's not an idiot, he's just a bit under-equipped for these particular situations). Practically from birth, Kevin has had a unique ability to be a perfect angel around his dad, while he just has it in for his mother and never cooperates with even the simplest things. There's only a single moment in the entire film where he shows her any affection, which cleverly hides a bit of foreshadowing in the process, because it's such a warm and yet shocking surprise.
One thing that I really appreciated about the film was how much the outside world was kept out of it, particularly in the flashback scenes. In the present day, we see Swinton being harassed by neighbors and locals, and we don't yet know why, but otherwise she keeps to herself - there's a heartbreaking moment where she lies to her mother (over the phone) about having people over for Christmas dinner, before sitting alone with a sandwich instead. But in the past, we barely ever leave the house that they live in, and there aren't any outside characters of note. No shrinks, no friends (of anyone). The minimal scenes dealing with their jobs are handled via phone calls, and apart from a brief scene with a doctor (Kevin breaks his arm at home) it's not until the third act that we ever see Kevin sharing the screen with other human beings besides his family. Whether this was intentional or not, I am unsure - but I have to assume so. This was based on a book, and in that there was a best friend character as well as some other students at school that he had particular interactions with, but that has all been excised entirely here.
And yes, it's scary. Not in the jumpy sense (though there IS one of those, oddly enough), but in the unnerving, getting under your skin kind of way, it's one of the most terrifying movies in years. Right off the bat director Lynne Ramsay makes the audience feel uncomfortable, with off-kilter closeups, heightened audio editing (you'll hear every crunch as Kevin mashes some Fruity Pebbles into dust), and just an overall sense that something awful has happened - just in the first five minutes! The non-chronological structure also allows for some terrific "when is it going to happen?" plot threads - I don't want to spoil things, but one character sports a horrific injury in the first few minutes, but it's about 90 minutes into the movie by the time we know how it occurred. So every object that COULD cause such an injury gets a bit of a murmur whenever it shows up on-screen, which is even more fun when it turns out to be a misdirection. "Ohhhh, that's how - oh wait, nope..." It's like the serious, upsetting version of the running gag from Hot Tub Time Machine regarding Crispin Glover's missing arm.
There's actually a lot of misdirection in the film, though one bit doesn't quite come across as successful as the others. At one point in the flashback scenes Swinton and Reilly discuss a certain family matter (I'm trying to be as spoiler-free as possible since it's still in VERY limited release) that would seemingly explain her situation in the present day scenes, however it doesn't really work as there's a fairly useless scene a few minutes later that resolves the issue. I think without this bit, a devastating scene later on would have even MORE of an impact; I almost wonder if the "useless" scene was inserted so the audience wouldn't go into hysterics at the other one - the useless one kind of prepares us for it! I know this makes almost no sense but when you see the movie you'll hopefully get what I mean, even if you don't necessarily agree.
There's a certain real life tragedy (actually a few, though one is the "go-to" version to name-check) that is echoed in the film, one that other films have used as the basis for something far less effective - I think this is the first that has put the parent as the focus in this particular way. While Swinton's character may have her faults as a mother, anyone can plainly see that what Kevin does is in no way the result of bad parenting or a "broken home" (she's not a stripper, is what I'm saying), yet she has to live with everyone assuming that she is (the book apparently had more of this element - I think the movie made the right call to strip it down to the bare minimum and keep it more personal). It's devastating on many levels, and the fact that it's wrapped in a psychological thriller of sorts makes it a must-see film whether you're just into horror or not. Easily one of the best films of 2011; I will forever kick myself for choosing to watch the (mostly bad) short films at Fantastic Fest while this terrific film was playing in the next room. Don't make my mistake - see it (LEGALLY!) when the opportunity arises.
What say you?
*In that doc someone compared Joshua's score to the one in There Will Be Blood, which was by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead... who also composed this film. WEIRD.