Evil kid movies are nothing new. From “The Bad Seed” to “The Omen” to “The Good Son,” kids have been creeping us out for years.
But while these movies were played for campy thrills and chills, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a morose and heavy-handed take on the subject that layers great performances over a deeply flawed movie.
Kevin (played by various actors representing different ages, but primarily played as a teenager by Ezra Miller) is evil. There is not a lot of subtlety or nuance to his character. It seems his sole purpose is to torment his mother, Eva, (Tilda Swinton) in increasingly horrible ways.
The movie flashes back and forth between Kevin’s progression through childhood and Eva’s miserable life after Kevin’s final and grandiosely unspeakable act.
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” fancies itself as a much more serious film than any of the movies I mentioned earlier and this is where the problems begin. It can’t be considered a straightforward drama because to portray teenagers who commit horrible crimes as so one-dimensional is lazy at best and insulting at worst.
A character like Kevin can only really exist in a horror movie or a thriller, and this film — while filled with tension — lacks any real payoff or emotional catharsis those genres demand.
So what are we left with? This movie is really all about Eva, who is wholly undeserving of the fate she has had so cruelly heaped upon her.
Her attempts at mothering Kevin are admirable, although any moments of mother and son affection are virtually nonexistent which doesn’t really jibe because I’m sure even Hannibal Lecter and his mother at least hugged each other every once in a while.
What’s also surprising is how the rest of the world is completely oblivious to Kevin’s seething malice. He pulls the wool over the eyes of his dopey father (John C. Reilly, who has proven to be good in just about anything) with relative ease, but it seems the second this kid entered kindergarten, the holy water, and flak jacket budget at the local elementary school would have gone through the roof.
To her credit Swinton goes all-in on this role, earning a Golden Globe nomination for her performance. She is an incredibly gifted actress and is fascinating to watch even as the movie labors on around her.
The film also takes advantage of her unique physical characteristics. One moment Swinton can be strangely beautiful with her striking features and wide eyes, and the next she is transformed by misery into the living personification of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”
Writer and director Lynne Ramsay get points for effort because she does pull off the non-linear storyline and attempts to establish a visual motif, although her use of the color red is about a subtle as a sledgehammer.
The point Ramsay is trying to make is unclear; her movie sneers at parenthood as poor Eva is subjected to unrelenting, hyper-realistic torment.
The film lays all of its cards on the table relatively early on so nothing new is really revealed after the first 15 minutes of the movie, other than the seemingly boundless depths of Kevin’s depravity.
A few years ago the phrase “torture porn” was coined to describe the gratuitous horrors of the “Saw” and “Hostel” movies. “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is basically emotional torture porn as the camera lingers on Eva as she repeatedly suffers inhuman amounts of psychological distress while the audience wonders how much more she, and we, can take.
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” is rated R for disturbing violence and behavior, some sexuality, and language.