Director Lynne Ramsay’s return to films after nine years is a dazzling and disturbing adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel.
Cleverly adapting the epistolary form of the book with a flashback structure, Ramsay and co-writer Rory Kinnear have crafted a bold and unsettling drama that borders on horror.
It depicts the fears and anxieties of a middle class American mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton) as we see her disturbing relationship with her son over a number of years.
There is the doubtful pregnancy, where she seemingly regrets the loss of independence motherhood brings, and the different stages of Kevin.
We see the young toddler (Rocky Duer), the creepy 6-8 year old (Jasper Newell), the malevolent teenager (Ezra Miller) and the period after where Eva must shape a new life for herself.
Along the way, we see how events affect her husband (John C. Reilly) and younger daughter (Ashley Gerasimovich) as things spiral out of control.
It isn’t an exaggeration to describe this as a kind of horror movie, as it not only channels classics of the genre such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Omen (1976) but homes in with laser-like precision on the darkest fears of motherhood.
It’s effectiveness is such that I would warn expectant mothers to realise that this may do for parenthood what Psycho (1960) did for showering in remote hotels or Jaws (1975) did for swimming on a beach.
Nonetheless, this only speaks to the skill with which the book has been visualised for the big screen and the core themes and questions are all still here.
How much do the formative early years of childhood shape a character? Is it possible for evil to be an innate characteristic? Do ambivalent mothers somehow transmit their feelings to their offspring? Do parents and children pick sides in a family?
It is to Ramsay’s great credit that she has dealt with these uncomfortable concepts with such verve, whilst preserving the ambiguous, tantalising details which continually make us question characters and their actions.
The film looks stunning with the director and her cinematographer Seamus McGarvey opting for carefully composed widescreen images, which not only isolate Swinton’s protagonist but accentuate the little details which make up the visual fabric of the film.
Opting to use the colour red at every conceivable opportunity, the film seems to be referencing a similar visual motif from Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1971), an idea made more intriguing when you realise Luc Roeg (Nic’s son) is one of the producers.
We Need to Talk About Kevin plays like a weird contemporary reversal of that film: instead of the death of a child bringing tragedy upon a family, it is the birth of one that causes all the problems.
The intricate look is augmented by a rich audio design by Paul Davies, which brilliantly accentuates key sounds such as Kevin’s collicky screams against a builder’s drill or the grotesque eating of food to create a memorable ‘second layer’ to the film.
There is also the editing by Joe Bini (a veteran of Werner Herzog’s documentaries) which delineates between the different periods with consummate grace and also provides the film with a narrative drive as it circles around a key, revelatory event.
Jonny Greenwood’s atmospheric score isn’t quite up to the level of his work on There Will Be Blood (2007) but it does give the film a discordant quality, which syncs nicely with the rest of the film.
Despite the excellence of its construction, the film is dependant on a key lead performance from Tilda Swinton who more than delivers as Eva, reflecting the doubts, fears and weary disappointment of a woman caught in a living nightmare.
It is a very tricky character to play, by turns sympathetic and cold, but she delivers some of the best acting of her career here, which given her past roles is really saying something.
The supporting cast suffer a little from Swinton’s domination of the screen: John C Reilly feels a little miscast and Ezra Miller at times overdoes the demonic act to the point where some scenes feel like he’s auditioning for Damien: Omen II.
If there is a problem with the film, it may be that it is too effective for its own good.
Due to the collapse in the upscale indie market since 2008, Ramsay and the producers had to rework the script and budget in order to get the final financing in place.
I’m glad they did because this is a film that will stand the test of time, but as for its commercial prospects one can only wonder what the core audience for this film will think.
It could be that they appreciate the skill with which Shriver’s book has been adapted but also appalled at the way it burrows into their deepest fears and then explodes like an emotional dirty bomb.
I’ve already heard a couple of reactions to this film where members of the audience seemed viscerally angry with the way it dealt with a topic in a way which is probably still taboo.
Perhaps for some it will be too much and in the current recessionary climate its box office probably won’t be reflective of the sheer quality on display.
But over time I suspect it will be gain a certain status as a daring film and in the privacy of their own home many parents will sneakily watch it in the same way they used to sneakily observe horrors their parents banned them from seeing.
This is a unconventional family movie played as a tangible waking nightmare: there are Kevin’s out there and sometimes they happen to the best of parents.