We Need To Talk About Kevin (Movie Review)

Before learning anything specific about Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, I was under the unfortunate impression that Kevin was another “evil kid” movie.   One based on a critically-acclaimed novel, sure, but still:  yet another “evil kid” movie.  Oh, boy.  How exciting. And so, I expected the typical “evil kid” plot:  upper-middle-class parents have a child that’s supposed to completely reinvigorate a stale marriage, child turns out to be weird, strange things start happening, a neighbor’s dog (or, hell, why not:  a neighbor) ends up dead, and somehow it  turns out the little kid is “possessed” or “the Devil” or “the Devil’s child” or “the Devil’s son’s tutor” or something equally stupid.  Besides the “killer car” and the “killer kitchen-appliance” sub-genres of horror, this might be the most overused and least entertaining plot device ever employed, repeated so many times and with so many tiny variations that it’s long since lost what little punch it might have ever had. 


In the last few years alone, we’ve seen a terrible remake of the original “evil kid” flick (The Omen), a she’s-not-really-a-kid-she’s-actually-a-homicidal-dwarf movie (Orphan), and a horror-indie about an undead baby (Grace),  but only that last one was any good (actually, Grace is excellent if you can handle it), and before that we hadn’t seen a good “evil kid” movie in over a decade.  Knowing this, the prospect of yet another trip through “evil kid” territory did not blow my proverbial skirt to new and exciting heights.  In fact, the very idea of it left me yawning, and so I stopped paying attention to Kevin almost as soon as I’d read the film’s logline.

This was a massive mistake.

Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (based on the novel of the same name by Lionel Shriver) might’ve been unfairly shut out at the Oscars this year, but—for the love of all that is holy—do not take that as commentary on its general quality:  not only is Kevin the best film I’ve seen thus far in 2012, but it would’ve easily ended up near the top of my “Best of 2011” list had I seen it before 2011 wrapped.  Kevin is a harrowing, genuinely disturbing, intense little movie, and you should go way, way out of your way to see it as soon as possible.

The film’s been making the film festival rounds for some time now (it played during Fantastic Fest, but—like a jackass– I managed to miss the film’s one and only screening), so  I’m probably not the first critic you’ve heard ranting about how great Ramsay’s film is:  critics have been fawning over star Tilda Swinton’s awards-worthy turn for months now (they’ve moved on to bemoaning her shut-out at the Oscars;  like Kirsten Dunst’s shut-out for Melancholia, it’s a travesty), while fans of the novel have praised the adaptation for being unusually respectful to the source material (more on this a little later on).  Still others have championed the stifling sense of dread the film inspires.  Indeed, some have claimed that the tension was so severe, they became nauseous while watching the film.

That’s right:  nauseous.

While that may not sound like your average “ringing endorsement”, in this case it might be some of the highest praise one could heap upon Ramsay’s film:  were it not as emotionally disturbing and effective as it is, there’d be very little point.  Causing audiences to squirm is We Need to Talk About Kevin’s entire reason for being.

That was certainly the case with Shriver’s novel.   Some have nervously joked that We Need to Talk About Kevin is really just birth-control disguised as unnerving entertainment, but it’s unlikely that Shriver’s intent in writing the novel—and, in turn, Ramsay’s intent in directing the film—had anything to do with keeping lusty teenagers or clueless adults from impregnating one another.  It’s a cautionary tale of sorts, yes, but its main purpose is to attract and repulse in the same way that any great work of horror-fiction does:  by showing us that true evil doesn’t always wear a hockey mask and carry a machete.  All the truly scary works of fiction know that “evil” can look just like your next-door neighbor (Martyrs), a group of septuagenarians (Rosemary’s Baby),  a parent battling alcoholism (The Shining), or—in the case of Kevin—a teenage boy with a lethal chip on his shoulder.

That virtually every one of us is already a parent or a parent-waiting-to-happen makes it all the easier to imagine ourselves in the deeply unfortunate position We Need To Talk About Kevin’s Eva Katchadourian (Tilda Swinton) finds herself in in:  what would you do if your own child rejected you, and what if you suspected that the rejection wasn’t just garden-variety teen-angst, but something far more insidious?  What if your own child seemed determined to drive you insane, or destined to hurt others?  And–most chillingly of all– what if your own spouse didn’t believe you when you shared these suspicions?

We Need to Talk About Kevin takes us from Eva’s pregnancy all the way up through the aftermath of her son’s teenage years (and one particularly nasty event around the time of his sixteenth birthday).  When Kevin is a baby, he’s uncommunicative and resistant to Eva’s clumsy attempts at mothering;  when he’s a toddler, he’s outright scornful.  When Eva voices concerns to her husband, Franklyn (John C. Reilly, always an asset), he assumes she’s exaggerating…or, in darker moments, assumes she’s rejecting the responsibilities of motherhood.  Things come to a grisly head when Kevin enters his teenage years (where he’s played by the impressive newcomer Ezra Miller), but to say anything more about the film’s plot would do you a disservice:  go into We Need to Talk About Kevin knowing nothing more than I’ve laid out here and you’ll do just fine.

Ramsay’s film retains most of the major plot points from Shriver’s novel, not to mention much of its dialogue and seemingly throwaway details (Kevin’s undersized clothing, for instance, which makes the transition from page to screen).  Of course this won’t mean anything to you if you’ve never read the book, but those of you who have know that this is very good news, indeed:  Shriver’s novel is dense and poetic, with sharp bits of dialogue and relatable, clearly-drawn, intelligent characters (I’m sure plenty of studios noted the success of Shriver’s book, and so one imagines that their probable impulse was to turn We Need to Talk About Kevin into a cookie-cutter, run-of-the-mill splatterfest –they probably would’ve retitled it “Crossbow” or “High School Massacre” or “Domestic Violence” or some stupid thing—so thank God Ramsay got a hold of it first).  As you surely know, “sharp dialogue” and “intelligent characters” are not hallmarks of the horror genre, so it’s a breath of fresh air to see such things employed so effectively here.

Which reminds me:  some will surely bristle at the idea of Kevin being referred to as a “horror film”, but I’m standing by my guns.  Much in the same way that Black Swan snuck into the party by presenting itself as a “dramatic thriller”, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a horror film even if it doesn’t showcase the usual symptoms of a film in that genre:  there are no buckets of blood, pot-smoking teens, or cabin in the woods.  Black Swan was a “body-horror” film (see also:  the work of David Cronenberg),  while Kevin is what I’d consider an “emotional-horror” film:  the violence happening onscreen may not be as gory as some of the onscreen deaths you’d seen in, say, the latest Friday The 13th sequel, but that doesn’t mean the violence is any less brutal.  These are emotional wounds, but We Need to Talk About Kevin proves that those can be even scarier:  after you’ve seen it, I think you’ll have no trouble agreeing that a silent five-year-old wielding a squirt-gun can be just as terrifying as a hockey-masked killer wielding a machete.


Final Thoughts




2 Responses to “We Need To Talk About Kevin (Movie Review)”

  1. Matt Goodman

    So far, my favorite film of the year! I absolutely loved it.

  2. Brian White

    I have heard SO MANY good things about this film!