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Review: ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’

Tilda Swinton Was Robbed By Margaret Thatcher

Above: Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly star as parents in "We Need To Talk About Kevin."

Tilda Swinton was robbed by Margaret Thatcher. After you see "We Need to Talk About Kevin" (finally opening on March 9 at Landmark's La Jolla Village Theaters) you'll realize that she deserved an Oscar nomination at the very least for her work in this indie gem from last year. But sadly the award went instead to the overrated film "The Iron Lady" for Meryl Streep's performance as Margaret Thatcher.

"We Nee to Talk About Kevin," along with "The Tree of Life" and "Drive," were my top picks from last year. They topped the list because they were all supremely cinematic and used the language of film in ways that far surpassed everything else at the mall theaters and even at the art house.

The less you know about "We Need to Talk About Kevin" the better. So all I will say is that it's an impressionistic portrait of a mother's relationship with her son, a boy who knows exactly how to push his mother's buttons while seeming the perfect child to his father. It raises questions about nature versus nurture, and how responsible a parent is for how their child turns out. The film does not look to assign guilt or blame -- that's really too mundane -- but rather to give us complex, flawed, and difficult characters, and to offer a portrait of motherhood that is far from feel-good.

In a certain sense the film is a mother's horror story. But the early teasers for the film made it look almost like a comedy as Swinton's Eva is shown seeking relief from her baby's non-stop crying by standing next to a construction worker jack hammering and being soothed by the sound as if it were a lullaby.

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"We Need to Talk About Kevin" Trailer

Above: "We Need to Talk About Kevin" Trailer

Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Lionel Shriver, the film serves up something that feels like stream of consciousness. Director Lynne Ramsay excels at visual storytelling and capturing emotional truths in vivid images. Her film eschews a linear narrative and instead lets Eva's mind take us back and forth through time. The film opens with a shot of drapes blowing at night in a home. In one respect it tells us nothing but in another sense it tells us everything with this first image. It is an image pivotal to Eva. It then cuts to what appears to be an Indian Holi celebration, where Eva is covered, as is everyone else, in bright red. A red that turns out to be the defining color for the film just as red defined Shakespeare's "Macbeth."

Eva finds both her car and home vandalized with red paint and she essentially spends the length of the film cleaning that mess up. The cleaning process symbolizes what she's going through emotionally -- a cleansing. The red is both vibrant and ominous. Ramsay's approach asks the audience to be patient and to pay attention. Close attention. That expression, "Wait for it... wait for it" is apt here. Wait for the this film, be patient because the artistic payoff is staggering. Things don't always make sense -- like when a woman on the street suddenly slaps Eva and tells her to go to hell -- but it all eventually does add up to a very vivid portrait of a mother.

Ezra Miller as the teenage Kevin.

Ossilloscope

Above: Ezra Miller as the teenage Kevin.

In a more linear film, you can easily step out for a bathroom break and not miss anything that you couldn't get caught up on in a sentence or two from the person sitting next to you. But in "Kevin," you turn away for a few seconds and you could miss a single shot that forms much needed connections later on. Look away and you might miss an entire memory that's summed up in a single image or glance. Take a scene in which Eva is trying to teach a toddler Kevin how to roll a ball to her. He refuses but then decides to roll it back. This elates his mother. But then he goes back to refusing any interaction. In that brief scene we see the whole dynamic of their relationship -- how he toys with her, gives her a moment of hope, and then denies her even more forcefully.

Ramsay excels at this style of filmmaking. She dazzled audiences with her debut film "Ratcatcher" and then showcased a riveting Samantha Morton in "Morvern Callar." She doesn't need much dialogue to convey her stories because she has such a great eye for detail be it the particular color of light, the sound of a lawn sprinkler, or the way Kevin bites off his fingernails and lines them up on a table. Each of those things is attached to one of Eva's memories -- each is like one of Proust's Madeleines taking her back to a moment from her past.

Tilda Swinton and Rocky Duer in "We Need to Talk About Kevin."

Oscilloscope

Above: Tilda Swinton and Rocky Duer in "We Need to Talk About Kevin."

Anchoring the film is Swinton's spellbinding performance. There is not a single false move here as she loses herself completely in this mother who cannot after 18 years fathom anything about her son. She gives us a woman that we can empathize with yet we can never fully warm up to her either. That's one of the great things about Swinton, she never feels that she has to ingratiate herself with an audience. She is only committed to conveying the truth of the character and if that sometimes makes the audience uncomfortable then so be it. Swinton is amazing because she can convey so much with her eyes or with a gesture, and she's perfectly complemented by Ramsay who knows exactly how to highlight each of those things.

The film is a full team effort though. Ramsay orchestrates exquisitely but is well supported by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, editor Joe Bini, co-writer Rory Kinnear, composer Jonny Greenwood, and sound designer Paul Davies. The fact that this film received no Oscar nomination for any of its supremely talented crew is an embarrassment.

In addition to Swinton, Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell, and Rocky Duer stand out as teenage, elementary school age, and toddler Kevin respectively. This trio of young actors share a unnerving stare that puts Damien from "The Omen" to shame.

"We Need to Talk About Kevin" (rated R for disturbing violence and behavior, some sexuality and language) is sublime. As with "The Tree of Life" from last year, "Kevin" serves up something that is uniquely cinematic (even though based on a novel). It uses image, sound, and movement as the primary language for telling its story so that it does not come at you like exposition or plot but rather like a flood of emotions and memories that need to be sorted out. Treat this film like a horror/mystery, one very rooted in the real world, which is why I urge people to go out and see it quickly before you find out too much about the film and where the story goes. Plus so you can see it again. A second viewing is when you can genuinely appreciate all the details Ramsay has carefully laid out. In fact I have seen it 3 times and each time notice something new and make a new connection. Like hearing the Buddy Holly song "Every Day" and realizing how the musical notes at a certain point make the exact same sound as the sprinkler we hear that triggers Eva's memory -- it's tiny details like that, details you may not notice but that subconsciously affect you, that reveal Ramsay's brilliance as a filmmaker. But of course the main reason to see this film is to get a master class in acting from the incomparable Tilda Swinton.

After... and please do make it after you see the film, check out this interview with the book's author, Lionel Shriver.

Companion viewing: "Julia" (2008), "Memento," "Ratcatcher"

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