For a film titled We Need to Talk About Kevin, there isn't much talking, and certainly not enough about Kevin.
Instead, the story is told largely through the eyes of star Tilda Swinton - whose recent Oscar snub is considered one of this year's top mistakes by an increasingly distrusted Academy - who elevates every moment she is on screen.
Swinton plays Eva Khatchadourian, the mother of mass-murderer Kevin, who at 15 carries out a massacre at his high school. A critical darling at both the Cannes and Scottsdale Film Festivals, We Need to Talk About Kevin opens in the Valley today.
The film follows Eva's experience in the aftermath of the tragedy, a non-linear narrative scramble of memories from her life: from the joy of falling in love with Kevin's father (played as sweet but woefully naive by the always splendid John C. Reilly) to the struggles to bond with her unaffectionate son. We learn the details of the story, at once grotesque and mundane, through the puzzle of Eva's journey - with particular emphasis on the missing pieces.
The stylized film form immediately creates a sense of incongruity, of a world gone mad, which mirrors Eva's emotional state.
For Eva, the world she sees before her no longer makes any sense (assuming it ever did), and Scottish director Lynne Ramsay's translation of that feeling to the audience is deftly accomplished.
The casting of Swinton itself is already out of place; her alien beauty, like the long and lean muse to some Milan madman, looks often wildly inappropriate when moving through spaces of rural kitsch and domesticity. Her chic style - from the giant sunglasses she wears to a job interview to the Victorian pram in which she pushes baby Kevin - only adds to her alienation as the mother of a killer.
But it is the soundtrack most of all that throws the audience off-kilter, a bizarre combination of upbeat country, classic Buddy Holly, and Christmas carols old and new. These songs are intermixed with a series of brilliant sound motifs that complement the film's recurring reds: the scrubbing of a thick brush on the porch that sounds like heavy, distressed breathing when lingered over the image of an injured teenager; the automatic sprinkler that sounds just enough like the repetitive firing of a machine gun.
Where the film stumbles into the shallow end is in the procession of brunette Chuckys portraying Kevin as he grows up (infant Kevin in particular would be more at home in The Shining's never-ending playgroup).
While each of these young Kevins gives an incredible, often frightening performance, together they give evidence that so squarely favors nature as the root problem that Eva's process of questioning and remembering is robbed of any depth.
If we accept the film's representation of Kevin as a psychopath from birth, there is no longer a desperate need to ask, "What went wrong?"
At the same time, despite these familiarly flat scenes of child-monster-at-play, what We Need to Talk About Kevin accomplishes that its horror cousins often don't (especially the remakes) is an unabated feeling of tension.
To say that the film is disturbing is an understatement; you might take a deep breath at the beginning and not exhale until the credits role.
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As dialogue takes a supporting role to body language in We Need to Talk About Kevin (with mesmerizing silent scenes between Swinton and relative newcomer Ezra Miller, who plays the teenage Kevin), the film's title could perhaps best be read as a demand of the audience. There are bullet points for this discussion scattered throughout the story, from Kevin's acknowledgement of our culture's deification of criminal as celebrity, to his early obsession with violence in video games.
But the real meat of this societal conversation is sometimes hard to come by in a medium in which Eva's subjectivity makes her perspective hard to doubt. It may not be until the last few, disquieting minutes of We Need to Talk About Kevin that you finally find something to say.