Original release: October 21st, 2011
Running time: 112 minutes
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Writers: Lynne Ramsay, Rory Stewart Kinnear, Lionel Shriver
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller
Scottish director Lynne Ramsay gained critical acclaim for her debut feature Ratcatcher (1999) which depicted a bleak but hypnotic tale of family life set in ‘70s Glasgow. After a five year hiatus, Ramsay returned with Morvern Callar (2002), adapted from the Alan Warner novel of the same name which received a mixed reception from audiences and critics.
During another lengthy hiatus, she tried to bring Alice Sebold’s Lovely Bones to the screen to little success. After abandoning the project, she turned her attention to adapting Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. What she gave us was one of the most unsettling films of the past decade. It was also her masterpiece.
After her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) went on a killing spree at his high school, Eva (Tilda Swinton) reflects on Kevin’s upbringing, trying to evaluate if she caused the boy to turn into a killer.
When bullies prey on the weak, we try to understand the bully’s motivation. Most of the time we just assume it’s because of their upbringing and who do we ultimately blame: The parents. Ramsay, and Shriver, sought to address this assumption with chilling results. Here we have a parent’s worst fear realised: your own offspring is a killer.
The film is a departure for Ramsay, though it can be compared to Ratcatcher in terms of looking at a tense family unit. Ramsay’s pacing of the film is slow and deliberate, drawing the viewer in as they try and piece together the fractured narrative. The structure of the film allows each significant part of Kevin’s life to be examined carefully.
The camerawork blends Ramsay’s trademark handheld with more traditional static framing, placing particular attention on small things such as Kevin’s eating habits. The close-ups of food going into Kevin’s mouth add an extra level of menace to the character, displaying an insatiable appetite that cannot be quenched and is further emphasised when he removes lumps that he can’t chew. The way that Miller uses this trait sends a shiver down your spine. This is contrasted with close-ups of Eva removing bones she can’t chew, enhancing her guilt.
There’s not one frame wasted; every shot is constantly revealing something about each of the characters and adds to the unnerving, tense atmosphere. The handheld camera work adds brilliantly without drawing attention to itself, or to make the film look gritty.
The performances are outstanding. Swinton gives a solid portrayal, another landmark in her career, of a woman who is, for the most part, battling both emotionally and at times physically with her son. Is she sympathetic? Did she drive the boy to mass murder? We’re forced to question her character throughout and at times we struggle to find a grey area.
As the film unfolds she is not as likeable as we may hope. Her character’s actions are always brought to question. Without spoiling certain key scenes, she mistreats the boy. However, Kevin takes the mistreatment as if ingesting it to gain momentum to unleash a fiery act of release. Kevin is a monster, there’s no doubt. However, is Eva ultimately responsible?
The overall sense of paranoia Swinton delivers is astounding. Miller delivers the counter point to Swinton. Kevin is cold, manipulative; everything his mother believes he is. He plays off Swinton brilliantly and the character he portrays is easily one of the best movie villains of the past decade. Reilly, with his small screen time, plays the father who can’t understand his wife’s paranoia until it’s too late. He deserves to be recognised for another subtle performance.
The only flaw one could say is that Reilly should have had more screen time to help bring more of an impact to the shattering finale. However, this is merely nitpicking as there are, genuinely, few flaws to find.
The film is a nightmarish journey into a horrific relationship between a boy and his mother. It draws comparisons to Roman Polanski’s classic Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Gus van Sant’s Elephant (2003).
With the recent flood of paedophobia films, such as Jaume Collet-Serra’s Orphan (2009), one could place We Need to Talk About Kevin within this category. However, this film epitomises a parent’s fear of turning their child into a monster, not for shock value, but to genuinely examine the process.
Ramsay has created an atmosphere that is more unsettling than any modern horror film, more suspenseful than any recent thriller and more gripping than any action film of recent times. This should be experienced by all.
Kyle Barrett is a PhD student at the University of the West of Scotland. His research focuses on digital film-making and current developments within national cinemas. He also writes and directs several short films and is currently working on the web series Ferocious Bloodaxe.
He also lectures and tutors on practical filmmaking classes.