Judging from the incongruous oddity that is We Need to Talk About Kevin, you have to wonder if star Tilda Swinton and director Lynne Ramsay set out to make completely different movies.
Swinton stars as Eva Khatchadourian, a mother struggling to come to terms with the fact that her son, Kevin, has committed a heinous crime. Teen violence, parental responsibility, post-traumatic depression – this is intense subject matter, but of the two main creative forces at work here, only one of them seems to be taking it seriously.
In flashbacks to Kevin’s childhood and a main narrative set in the aftermath of the tragedy, Swinton is intent on exploring Eva’s inner anguish. Early on, when Kevin is a maddeningly uncooperative toddler, Eva squints at him with a mixture of despair, confusion and anger that every parent feels at one time or another, but is only magnified here. It’s a raw performance, as Swinton’s usually are, and deserving of its own, clear-eyed movie.
Unfortunately, that’s not the movie Ramsay has made. I’m not entirely sure what the British director of Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar is up to. The tone of We Need to Talk about Kevin varies wildly, but if there is one predominant note being struck, it’s that of horror camp. How else to explain the scene of trick-or-treaters in masks leering at Eva while a Buddy Holly song plays on the soundtrack? Or a flashback in which Eva pushes Kevin in a carriage straight out of Rosemary’s Baby? Or the sex scenes between Swinton and John C. Reilly as Eva’s husband? Horror, indeed.
At its worst, this demon-seed thread – in which Kevin is an unstoppable force of evil – is simple-minded and reductive. It’s certainly insensitive to the sort of actual incidents that the movie’s plot brings to mind. (If only Columbine could have been explained this easily.) In this respect, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a pale shadow of Gus Van Sant’s elegiac Elephant, which explored the issue of teen violence with both artfulness and nuance.
It’s not giving anything away to say that Kevin’s crime involves a lot of blood, which leads Ramsay to douse the entire picture in shades of red. We first see Eva, in flashback, drenched in tomato juice while reveling at the Tomatina festival in Spain. (At least that’s where I think she is; the scene is never really explained.) We later see her living alone, after the crime, in a run-down house that vandals have smeared with red paint. The use of red is so overdone – the worst shot in the movie is a close-up of Eva standing against an impeccably arranged shelf of tomato-soup cans – that you assume the color must be paying for some sort of product placement.
Despite Swinton’s presence, We Need to Talk About Kevin is decidedly false, which is frustrating in any movie and despicable in one that tackles this sort of subject matter. To borrow the movie’s limited metaphorical language, I’d rather give the picture a color rating than a star one. And yes, that color would be red.