Now that the awards season has come and gone, it’s time to look back on what the Academy may have overlooked when deciding who and what was good enough to be up for an Oscar. The first film that comes to mind is Nicolas Winding Refn’s brilliant Drive, which found itself left out of the Best Picture category despite critical praise (and the fact that only 9 of the 10 Best Picture slots were filled this year). Another notable snub, at least according to those who had seen it prior to the show, was Tilda Swinton for Best Actress in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Having finally seen it with its DC release right around the corner, I have to join those who scoffed at the idea of her not nabbing a nomination. A fearless actress in any role, she is downright brilliant here. One could argue over whether or not she deserved to win when up against other spectacular performances like Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady or Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn, but to not even give her a nomination is, quite frankly, insane. But We Need to Talk About Kevin is more than just a performance. It’s a damn fine film in its own right that is mesmerizing, haunting and eerie.
The film opens giving little information. It intercuts between past and present, from a time when Eva (Tilda Swinton) met her soon-to-be-husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) through the birth of their son Kevin (played by three different actors, the oldest version by Ezra Miller) and to the aftermath of a tragic event that has taken place. That event serves as the film’s central mystery and though you know it wasn’t pretty, you don’t know what happened and certain early moments in the film manage to confuse even more. Eva runs into a random woman on the sidewalk, for instance, who slaps her and tells her she hopes she rots in Hell. Then a young man in a wheelchair calls her over and tells her that his doctors say he may be able to walk again one day. All of these events are connected, but the how is left intentionally vague.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a tough movie, both thematically and structurally, to sit through, and it demands that you pay attention and start fitting the pieces together. Without some heavy thought, motivations and reasoning will be left unexplained. This isn’t a film that tells you everything. You have to discover it yourself, a refreshing change to be sure. Eventually, however, the movie slows down and the shifts between the two time periods become less frequent, making it much easier to become invested in what’s happening. You begin to really learn about Kevin and Eva and when the mystery is revealed (if you haven’t already figure it out beforehand, which is a good possibility), these moments put it into perspective.
Kevin was a detached child, seemingly evil to the core, and he treated his mother like garbage. He tormented her and got a sick pleasure out of it, showing resentment even while still in diapers. He used her when he had to, like when he was sick and needed someone to take care of him. He destroys one of her rooms when she has her back turned and then he fools his father into thinking he did it out of love. He is a disturbed person and the film gets that point across crystal clear. His motivation for those acts isn’t necessarily explained, but some behavior simply can’t be explained. Even as a baby, when he was far too young to know what he was doing, he cried and screamed constantly, but only when he was with Eva. The film makes the point that some behavior is so deeply rooted in us there’s nothing we can do to change it, a frightening, but certainly interesting notion.
Eva isn’t so happy herself either. When she tries to play with Kevin and he doesn’t respond, she becomes frustrated. When he won’t stop crying, she gets so annoyed that the sound of a construction site jackhammer gives her some peace. In the present day, after the mysterious event, she is isolated, shunned and disillusioned, the latter expressed beautifully with blurry visual cues. She has her own demons to fight, a metaphor expressed perhaps a bit too literally when trick-or-treaters circle her car when driving home on Halloween night.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a great movie that could nevertheless stand to be trimmed up a bit. A nearly two hour runtime isn’t overly long by any means, but Kevin’s early years are stretched thin. At a certain point, you get it. You understand that Kevin is a troubled kid and wish for the movie to move along. When it finally does, it’s gripping to the end and that slight loss of momentum becomes easily forgivable.
We Need to Talk About Kevin receives 4/5