There is depressing, and then there is misery. And then there is We Need to Talk About Kevin, one of the most soul-sucking movies of all time. Featuring yet another great performance by Tilda Swinton and a disturbingly alluring story, the movie is also one of the best of 2011.
Swinton stars as Eva Khatchadourian, a woman who has more to be depressed about than her last name. Her son (played by toddler Rock Duer, young Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller) is a killer, and the worst kind of killer. He's a sociopath, and seemingly from birth has gone out of his way to manipulate those around him to make Eva's life a living hell.
We Need to Talk About Kevin jumps back and forth between two time periods, depicting Eva's miserable situation following a horrific event, and her prior life as she attempts to raise her emotionless son Kevin, her husband (John C. Reilly) ignorant of Kevin's issues. It's hard to discern whether Eva's life is worse before or after; she's never free of the devil child she's conceived.
The movie could have so easily become consumed by the misery onscreen that the viewing experience itself would be unbearable. Eva is not a very likable protagonist because she's no longer capable of being likable; she merely exists as a being that eats, breathes and craps until she'll eventually die. Rarely a happy moment occurs in the entire movie.
And yet, somehow, director and co-writer Lynne Ramsay found that fine line that works. Move a few inches to one side, the entire audience would slit their wrists, and you know how it is when someone spills a soda in a movie theater. Move a few inches to the other and the audience is locked out, observing a story about depressing people doing depressing things, with no reason to care for any of it.
Eva is not a very likable protagonist, but you feel for her. She's miserable because she has a miserable life, and you understand that, even emphasize with her. Because, after all, her life is miserable because she gave birth to the devil. It's like the sequel to Rosemary's Baby, only set in the real world. New parents are always afraid that something will be wrong with their child - he or she will have a mental handicap or deformity, or some incurable illness - but few think about what it would be like to give birth to a sociopath, a person incapable of understanding emotions or caring for others. It could happen, and for that fact We Need to Talk About Kevin grabs a hold and never lets go. You want so desperately for Eva to escape her situation, to be happy and have a normal life, but it's something she just can't have. Kevin is her son, and there is nothing she can do to change that.
Swinton is great as Eva, but it's Ramsay's direction that makes We Need to Talk About Kevin work so well. From the first second, with Swinton's face submerged in water, her character momentarily free of what's to come and what has already passed, Ramsay's eye for the artistic permeates through every aspect of the film. As sad and depressing as the movie is, it's beautiful and engaging, gripping and disturbing.
Not to be overlooked are the various actors who play Kevin. Especially chilling is Ezra Miller, who plays Kevin during his most wicked and calculating years. He's scarier than most horror movie villains, but set in the real world, he's downright frightening. Ironically, I hated Miller in Another Happy Day, another ultra-depressing movie released in 2011.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is not for the mainstream viewer nor is it for the faint of heart, but those who invest in it will discover that even at its most disturbing, it's breathtakingly good.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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