Did you know that the color red symbolizes stuff? Like blood, death and violence? And anger and other bad stuff? Well, it seems like veteran director, Lynne Ramsay, just found out. I'm not sure, because this is the first film of hers that I've seen. What this means is that I spent the movie's runtime playing Where's Waldo with the color red. I respect Ramsay's efforts to tell her story visually, but she wields her technique with a hammer. Other than this distracting storytelling device, We Need to Talk About Kevin provides a knockout performance by Tilda Swinton, troubling and prophetic subject matter and one of the more beautifully abstract renditions of a narrative that could--and has been--told in a very straightforward manner.
The film jumps around in its narrative's chronology, both for artistic and thematic reasons, so I won't get into spoiler details. Suffice it to say that when we meet Eva (Swinton), she is living alone in a haggard, miserable existence: her hair is shapeless and lank, she stares into the middle distance almost constantly and she speaks to barely anyone. She wakes up to find that the front of her dingy home has been covered in crimson-colored paint, as well as her car. The one bit of respite from her already terrible day comes when she gets a job as an administrative assistant in a janky travel agency, but she is then assaulted and berated by a woman in the parking lot, a bit of casual horror that she accepts passively. We don't know why, but the title suggest that it's got to do with Kevin.
Kevin is Eva's son, and throughout the course of the film, we watch him grow up under Eva's constant supervision (or do we watch Eva collapse under his constant presence?). At his oldest, he is played by Ezra Miller, the versatile young actor from Perks of Being a Wallflower, Trainwreck and as the Flash in the Justice League. Throughout his childhood, there are red flags littered throughout his behavior: he covers his mother's private room in ink when she shows him how she's decorated it; he seemingly intentionally shits himself right after Eva changes his diaper; and, most tellingly of all, he always puts on a show for his father, Franklin (John C. Reilly), who never seems to be around when Kevin is misbehaving. Eva desperately tries to tell Franklin of their son's malevolence, but he always brushes her off, citing him as just "being a boy," and that she is overreacting to his mischief.
Although the Netflix synopsis would have you believe that the film is about Eva wracking her mind to try to figure out where she went wrong in Kevin's upbringing, it's patently not. We Need to Talk About Kevin is concerned with the plight of mothers who can see all the warning signs of a sociopath in their child, but are powerless to stop it because of the obliviousness of the men around her, who inevitably wield the most control. Ramsay has crafted a horror film about the inevitability of the havoc that a child can wreak when society has no recourse for the only person who is often in the best position to stop the child from getting to the point of no return. There is nothing subtle about Kevin's behavior: he is clearly a monster from day one, and Eva is incapable of holding him in.
This sort of a movie is very tricky to manage, because it can so easily slide into senseless torture. After all, how many times do we have to witness Eva's life be ruined, bit by bit, by her child? But the film's unconventional structure and Swinton's performance save it from being mere schadenfreude. We see the highs and lows of Eva's life through Swinton's face; there are few actresses working today who use this tool such to their advantage, and absolutely no one looks quite like Swinton. Her absolute, irrational joy when Kevin finally rolls the ball back to her when he's a toddler is heartbreaking, because you know that this is the first time in his entire life that she's felt anything but coldness and resentment towards him. Swinton paints Eva as a woman who is fighting a constant battle not simply to hate her son, but to find out some way she can connect with him. In the end, it's all for naught, as the boy is clearly irredeemable.
And that is the point of the movie: as a parent, you still have to try. Franklin doesn't understand this, because he doesn't understand his son's nature: he's just not around enough for it. I've heard somewhere that you are never supposed to give up on your children. If there ever was a situation in which that's the best response, this would be it. If your a mother--or a father, I'd hope--maybe you just can't.