Reviewed by Ross Leslie

Forget your Supernanny and your naughty step; there are a few little angels out there who are simply immune to the contrived tried-and-tested cognitive behavioural techniques we see imposed on our televisions every week and who consciously choose to rebel against the frivolous demands of their birth givers. Enter our subject: Kevin.

 Based on Lionel Shriver’s 2003 bestseller of the same name, We Need to Talk About Kevin is Lynne Ramsey’s third feature film and follows Eva Khatchadourian’s parental turmoil as she attempts to cope with the pressures of raising her anarchically inclined son, Kevin, and how she is burdened with the repercussions of his disturbingly calculated act of nihilism.

The cinematic horror trope of a demonically sinister entity guised beneath the innocent exterior of a rosy-cheeked infant, often referred to as pedophobia, is nothing new: think The Omen, The Innocents and The Exorcist et al as seminal reference points. The difference between Kevin (played very convincingly by Ezra Miller) and his immortalised genre peers is his absence of supernatural justification: he is neither the incarnated spawn of Satan, nor a human vessel possessed by a malevolent demon; he is just an inherently doomed agent of despair and macabre and it is this real life plausibility that elevates him into a twisted league of his own.

Many critics have been quick to categorise We Need to Talk About Kevin as a work of horror fiction and there is plenty of iconographical evidence to support their assertions: sporadic excerpts of gore, slowly deployed withheld-reverse shots, a repulsively abject emphasis on food and the aforementioned corruption of infantile innocence. The family structure is also a classic convention: the enigmatic/problematic child, the victimised mother and the passive husband. However, the real horror in the film is not an overt exercise is torture or scare tactics, but rather the existential examination of the traumas facilitated from severe postnatal depression and the fear of maternal failure.

 Tilda Swinton is perfectly cast as Eva as she masterfully abandons the androgyny and assertiveness that she is so synonymous for and replaces them with a beautifully balanced neurotic subjectivity and, at times, a liberated sense of sexualised femininity that is emphasised by the film’s sumptuously stylised cinematography. She is often framed in oscillating focus as she drifts between her present day hopeless squalor and the past that seems to haunt every second of her waking day. The centerpiece of her brilliant characterisation concerns the repressed resentment she feels towards Kevin because prior to his birth she was a successful travel writer and due to her obviously self-inflicted maternal burden she had to relinquish her free spirited ways. This compounds the anxiety in her performance as it attributes self-acknowledged narcissism and guilt as a possible explanation to why Kevin grows into such an unrelenting provocateur of entropy. She sees a lot of undesirable similarities and flaws in Kevin that she sees in herself, which is handled subtly, yet superbly, by Ramsey in the dialogue and implicit cross-cutting between the characters.

 The sound of We Need to Talk about Kevin is an irrefutable highlight and is of recurrent importance in all of Ramsey’s previous films. The sound design, the often incongruous soundtrack and the original score – stripped from the mind of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood – are deployed to encapsulate, relieve and alienate in equal measure and the results are at times very disconcerting, but in a good way. The discordant and pervasive electronic tones are often utilised for portentous affect and mirror the increasing frailties in Eva’s psyche, whilst sound-bridges aid in breaching the boundaries of time to subject her to the inescapable memories of the past that continue to torment her.

 The visceral specifics of Kevin’s final atrocity are left undisclosed until the penultimate scene of the film, although you can’t help but feel that you’ve already been subjected to enough emotional suffering and dejection to last a life time by this point. Ramsey teases the audience with minor details and visual clues – most prominently the recurrent motif of the colour red – until the film’s coda, and how she has managed to structure the film’s fragmented narrative from challenging source material is a superlative exhibition of cinematic storytelling.

Every ensemble component to this film, from the acting to the editing to the sound design and the direction, is an astonishing achievement and any serious fan of cinema will find something preferential to satisfy their sensory appetite. Similar to her debut feature, Ratcatcher, Ramsey’s conclusion for We Need to Talk About Kevin denies the viewer a definitive closure or resolution, and perhaps poses more questions to ponder after the credits have rolled than when it began: What is wrong with this kid? Why did he commit these incomprehensible acts? Has he atoned for his crime? Will Eva ever be able to negate the pain of the past? These questions will never be answered conclusively, but one thing is for sure: after the film is over, you will want to talk about Kevin.

About The Author

Simon Fitzjohn

Simon is a journalism tutor in London, who also just happens to be a movie fanatic, with a craving for the darker side of cinema. He has written two books, one on the horror films of director Bob Clark (2014) and the other on the history of the character Norman Bates (2015). His third book, on the work of British exploitation director Pete Walker, is due in 2017.