We Need To Talk About Kevin tells the robust tale of Eva (Tilda Swinton), an uninhibited travel writer and her husband Franklin (John C Reilly) who after an unexpected pregnancy raise the troubled Kevin (Ezra Miller): a force of nature that destroys their life for no clear reason.
After an introductory scene that offers a glimpse into Eva’s buoyant early life while simultaneously setting an ominous mood (even hinting at the bloodbath that will plague Eva for the rest of her life), the film settles down into two simple, interweaving stories: Kevin’s early life and troubled maternal relationship; along with Eva’s subsequent empty life, and her efforts to survive in a world that seems so disapproving of her continued existence.
Ramsay, whose return to filmmaking has hit several bumps along the way, ditches the letter-based structure of Lionel Shriver’s source material, instead opting to competently tailor the multiple timelines and flashbacks into a concentrated and entirely engaging singular narrative. Miraculously, by doing so, the film never feels encumbered by excessive detail: the screenplay may have been four years in the making, but everything Ramsay has included is imperative to the experience. Perhaps the only issue with this approach is that, at times, the narrative feels a little too vigorous, with the emotionally devastating tragedy likely to haunt cinemagoers for days afterwards.
Adopting a visually arresting style that hurls the cinemagoer from one extreme to the other, Ramsay juxtaposes the blurry, almost carefree glimpses of the past – Eva and Franklin’s pre-Kevin romance – with the exacting sharpness of the here-and-now in a wonderfully fraught fashion. She makes full use of motifs, colours and heavy visual symbols to create an engaging yet unnerving tone and overwhelming sense of foreboding that permeates the flashback scenes to almost skin-crawling effect. Her style fits the material magnificently, almost warranting her extensive absence and feeling like a perfect progression from Morvern Callar.
In tune with the emotionally devastating and unrelenting authenticity of the narrative, Johnny Greenwood’s soundtrack exquisitely blends background noise, rasping screams and faded laughs with lithe compositions to set up a disquieting and mesmerising score. More noteworthy, though, is Swinton’s tour de force performance as Eva. Peppy, considerate, intimidated or paralysed, Swinton plays each seemingly with immense ease, throwing herself into the role with full force and a surprising amount of composure.
While not as captivating as Swinton, Miller’s insidious smiles alone are enough to unsettle anyone, and he shows real potential as the sinister Kevin, a character that resembles Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Reilly, continuing his determination to prove himself as a dramatic actor, delivers an unshakable turn as Eva’s bemused husband, but feels more like a poorly fleshed out plot point than a character intrinsic to the main story.
Unflinching, coercive and contentious, We Need To Talk About Kevin is a monumental piece of filmmaking and extraordinary return-to-form for filmmaker extraordinaire Lynne Ramsay. While it’s most certainly a difficult watch, it’s a film that commands your attention for its entire running time.