We Need To Talk About Kevin (hereafter to be referred to as Kevin, so I don’t lose the will to type), is best summarized as Shakespeare without the melodrama. The film is a slow burning, cerebral tragedy, stuffed with symbolism and carried along by some staggering performances: not the kind of film you watch hoping for an easy time. However, if you are ready to live up to its demands, Kevin will provide a viewing experience like no other.
The plot of Kevin functions exactly like one of the Bard’s tragedies, in that watching it is like watching lava flow inexorably towards an unsuspecting orphanage. The movie opens onto the dreams of Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), reliving her experience of the Spanish Tomatina festival, essentially a city-wide, tomato-based food fight. There, we catch our first sight of Swinton, and she is covered head to toe in blood-red gloop. Mm-mm taste that symbolism. Eva wakes, only to discover that she is indeed bathed in red: now though it is caused by light, tinted crimson by the paint splattered across the front of her tiny, ramshackle house. From the very beginning then we know this is a woman with troubles, and as the film progresses, weaving in and out of the past, we come to learn about their source: her son Kevin.
Now I already mentioned staggering performances, and really these are the best thing about Kevin. However, I would caution against going into the film expecting some Tinker, Tailor-style explosive emotional scenes. All the performances are understated and massively physical. The acting here is all in the little things, small changes in dress or expression, but frankly all this is as powerful, if not more so, than the usual outbursts.
Though everyone involved in this production is fantastic, Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller (teenage Kevin) steal the show. The former’s performance is most notable for its breadth. In the present, Swinton’s face combines the fear of the persecuted with the resignation and self-flagellation of the martyr. In the past however, she is more divided between a motherly compulsion to connect with Kevin, and a kind of passive loathing for her son. It’s not that she hates him necessarily. It’s more that there is this visible gulf between them that both she and Kevin are heavily aware of, and that makes mutual dislike inevitable. And yet, the tragedy of Eva as a character is that she is not simply left to deal with these inner struggles uninterrupted. Again and again she is brought moments of hope, where it seems for a golden moment that the gulf might be bridged. It is when the normal state of affairs brutally reasserts itself, that Swinton’s crushed performance truly shines.
On the other hand, Ezra Miller is note perfect as the psychopathic Kevin. His features are almost demonic; twisted into a mocking leer that only slips when his disgust for his mother and the world at large becomes too strong to conceal. But Miller cannot take sole credit for the wonderful creation that is Kevin. Of the others that share the part, special note should be made of Jasper Newell, who plays 6-8 year old Kevin. This is partly due to his chillingly adult malevolence, but also because, like Miller towards the end, Newell manages to bring tragedy to the character of Kevin. For though the character may be mostly monster, from time to time the disgust slips just as the leer does, and beneath is something that resembles, for all the world, a frightened little boy.
These twin performances are the main reasons to see the movie, but they are not alone in being excellent. The soundtrack is well chosen, at times perfectly atmospheric, at others darkly ironic. The visual symbolism is clear without being painfully obvious (there’s a fair amount of hand washing), and there’s even a few blackly comic laughs woven into the well-written script.
But with all that there is still one slight issue. I already mentioned how Kevin is pretty much Shakespeare without the melodrama. Well, the thing about melodrama is it provides an easy hook for entertainment. You can grip an audience without it, but the process is not as simple. Like it or not, it’s easier to grab an audience’s attention if you’re being noisy. Kevin, being so quiet, does not give an audience an easy time of it.
But, to conclude, I should say I didn’t find this too problematic. Neither do I think it should harm too many experiences: the power of the performances and the twisted attraction of watching the disaster unfold had me hooked from the off. It must be emphasised that We Need To Talk About Kevin is a demanding film. But sometimes that’s a good thing.
Movie Rating: 5/5
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