No, the title of writer/director Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is not inspired by the first words Julia Gillard’s PR team have greeted her with at the kick-off of every meeting since June 24, 2010.
The Kevin depicted in Ramsay’s film — a disturbing suburban thriller framed with the non-linear structure of a swirly art house drama — is equally as pallid-faced as Mr Rudd, though less than third his age and not half as keen on duckspeak and chit-chat.
Kevin (played at various stages of his life by three young actors but notably Ezra Miller as a slinky, calculating teenager) is a steely-eyed kid-wif-attitood raised by a caring if distanced mother (Tilda Swinton) in a cosy middle/upper class family. With John C Reilly as the imminently huggable patriarch bringing home the family bacon, how bad could life be?
If that question is directed at those closest to Kevin the answer is: VERY, especially for his try-as-she-might mum Eva (Swinton). Kevin (and by turn Ramsay and co-writer Rory Kinnear, adapting a novel by Lionel Shriver) flogs Eva as mercilessly as the pounded protags in von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000) and Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004). This time on an emotional level, but the wounds puncture deep.
Kevin has done a very bad thing – a very, very bad thing, the kind of child-strapped-to-the-railway-tracks bad thing you don’t talk about at dinner parties. Darting before and after the event, we see a deep-seated disconnect fester between mother and son and a powerful look at how Kevin’s actions have tumbled Eva’s day-to-day existence into horror.
The story begins after the fact, Eva forced to battle through life as a Dennis Ferguson-like social pariah, and gradually a complete picture emerges. Ramsay’s direction, matched with Tilda “ice queen extraordinaire” Swinton’s unwavering performance, unravel the gravity and impact of What He What Did with brick to the face heavy-handedness. The film packs a dramatic wallop Larry Clark (Kids, Ken Park) would be taken aback by.
Throughout the film Kevin maintains a stony-hearted glass-shattering look of controlled hatred, matched and raised by Tilda Swinton’s outstandingly haunted but earthy performance; a heart hidden behind a wall of dead fish and fallen dreams.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is meat-and-potatoes horror given arty dressing – think Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen crossed with kitchen sink drama, a target board thriller for audiences more scared by the prospect of corrupt genes than ghosts or devils.
Where the film falls down is in its simplification of the eponymous character, whose presence is given the philosophical depth of Damien, Michael Myers, Henry Evans (The Good Son) or even Stewie from The Family Guy in a film that demands to be taken seriously.
The extent of Kevin’s caricature evilness breaks the circuits of believability, particularly during scenes that take place when he is toddler and young child. The mean lil tyke literally refuses to play ball, poops in his pants for revenge and hatches nefarious plots against his mother with glares of icy disdain permanently stamped across his countenance.
Viewers will believe depictions of disenfranchised teenagers driven by malice and naivety that result in wicked deeds, but a Hyde-like child with no redeeming moral values is harder to accept. A few scenes in which Kevin could have been represented as a young ,“normal,” loving kid might have made the world of difference.
If Ramsay’s intention was to argue that evil can be as genetic as skin colour, perhaps Kevin’s character can be legitimised as a flesh ‘n’ blood rebuttal to the nature versus nurture argument, a dramatic exaggeration pushing a simple scary idea: that evil can be born just as plants can grow and the sun can shine. If her ambition was to dig deeper – and the blood-stained writing on the wall suggests this is so – chalk We Need to Talk About Kevin down as a pointed, gripping and atmospherically impressive failure.
We Need to Talk About Kevin’s Australian theatrical release date: November 17. 2011.