At long last Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is making its way to town, which will doubtless be a boon to quite a few film fans who’ve been asking when it would show up since its release late last year. Well, here it is—and I wish I could share the enthusiasm.
I’ve seen We Need to Talk About Kevin twice. I saw it about three months ago during awards season, and again a day ago for this review. My original take—apart from noting that it was a movie with a lot of red in the design—was that it was OK, but pretty far from the devastating experience it had been built up as. (And it got nowhere near my “best of” list.) But I thought maybe I’d missed something, so prior to writing about it, I opted to watch it a second time. This round, I was better able to appreciate (though that may not be quite the right word) the film’s jigsaw puzzle structure. Otherwise, however, Kevin no longer struck me as even OK.
It’s merely a pretentious, unpleasant, jumbled, woolly headed movie that’s really nothing more than a cheesy horror picture for people who wouldn’t be caught dead going to a cheesy horror picture. Even its title is horror-movie basic—What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, What’s the Matter with Helen?, How Awful About Allan etc. Worse, it’s one big tease. A real horror movie would have a payoff. This not only doesn’t, but it spills its beans from the onset. And lacking the courage of its horror convictions, its idea of gore is Tilda Swinton wallowing in crushed tomatoes at some orgiastic tomato festival. All of this is decked out with a hipper-than-thou selection of pop songs. And there’s also a lot of symbolic footage of Swinton doing the Lady Macbeth shtick trying to wash off red paint.
If you set aside the movie’s very sketchy ideas about whether future mass-murderer Kevin (played by Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell and Rock Duer at various ages) was born that way or is the result of mommy not liking him very much, what you’ve got is an Omen movie on a small scale. And since Ramsay can’t seem to decide if mommy is a martyr to motherhood (our first glimpses of her at the tomato frenzy present her as Christ-like) or a culpable party, there’s not all that much to bother setting aside. That’s doubly true because the film keeps presenting Kevin—at every age—as utterly monstrous, whether he’s a sullen child or an androgynous teen dressed in hip-huggers and tight T-shirts like a street hustler on the make.
Overall, Kevin is a good-looking movie that’s just overflowing with bad ideas, telegraphed plot points and some pretty hard-to-swallow notions. Even if you can accept the idea of Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly (in his most virulently ox-like mode) as a couple, it’s still hard to buy that he’s so dumb that he never even suspects his son’s transparent awfulness for 17 or 18 years. And if you can, by some improbable stretch, buy those things, can you really buy why Swinton’s character didn’t just run away from the whole mess ages ago? Can you possibly not see everything coming a mile off—from the entire trajectory of the Robin Hood fixation to the Fatal Attraction riff awaiting that hapless guinea pig? Is it possible to see Swinton scrubbing off red paint a third, a fourth, a fifth time and not giggle? What’s obnoxious is that Ramsay not only thinks you can, but insists you accept it all as some kind of important statement. Sure, Swinton is fine and the kids, especially Ezra Miller, are super creepy, but I’m left with nothing but a bad taste in my mouth and a huge “so what?” Rated R for disturbing violence and behavior, some sexuality and language.