It's every parent's worst nightmare and something Eva Khatchadourian knows from the start: There's something wrong with her son. And early in We Need to Talk About Kevin we know it too, because a teenage Kevin went on a shooting spree at his high school, killing several of his classmates.
The movie was originally scheduled to open at the Cedar Lee three weeks ago, but was pulled after the tragedy at Chardon High School on February 27. How it plays in a region still dressing fresh wounds from Chardon remains to be seen.
At the beginning of the movie, Tilda Swinton's Eva is already trying to pick up the pieces of her shattered life, distancing herself from the tragedy of her past and barely disguising just how fragile and vulnerable she's become. When a woman calls her a bitch and slaps her face on the street, Eva shrugs it off, as if this sort of thing happens to her every day.
Through flashbacks we learn how she and Franklin (John C. Reilly) hooked up one night in a seedy hotel room. How nine months later Kevin was born. How they started a family together in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. And how they avoided talking about Kevin, a moody and difficult child who takes malicious pleasure in tormenting his mom from an early age (Jasper Newell plays the younger Kevin; Ezra Miller portrays him in his teen years).
And we also learn how Eva was never much of a mother, reluctant to give birth and growing increasingly frustrated with her constantly crying baby. Is it her fault that Kevin turned out the way he did? Director and co-writer Lynne Ramsay somewhat implies this. Then again, the boy was a handful from the start. By the time Kevin finally cracks, it's not so much shocking as inevitable. He's locked up now, and his conscience is clear. It's his mom who's living in a prison.
Swinton doesn't say much; she doesn't have to. Her tear-stained eyes and anguished face carry all her emotions. In a career filled with terrific, subtle performances, she delivers what is clearly one of her best here. Eva isn't a particularly likable character — she tells toddler Kevin how much better her life was before him — but she is a sympathetic one. You can understand her frustration. (Swinton, incidentally, was nominated for more than a dozen Best Actress awards for the role, including a Golden Globe.)
Kevin only comes to life around his dad, especially when they're playing violent video games and Kevin yells "Die! Die!" at the screen.
Still, We Need to Talk About Kevin plods along at times as it slowly pieces together a story we already know the ending to. Reilly doesn't have much to do, offering support until he can't anymore. And the crisscrossing narrative reveals too little at a time.
Which may be the point. As we begin to see what a monster Kevin really is, there's no way around it: The kid's a prick. Sometimes they're just born that way. And that's something to talk about.
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