We Need to Talk About Kevin Review 

Tilda Swinton and her problem child

Thursday, Dec 8 2011

In Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin, Tilda Swinton lives out an urban bohemian's worst nightmare. Forced to give up her independence (and downtown loft) when a reckless night with schlubby photographer flame Franklin (John C. Reilly) results in an accidental pregnancy, free-spirit travel writer Eva becomes an unhappy housewife in suburbia, stuck caring for a child with whom she's unable to bond.

Baby Kevin is a terror long before his terrible 2's — in one scene, dead-tired Mom wheels the stroller out to a construction site, only to find that even droning jackhammers can't compete with the decibel level of her infant son's constant shrieking. But Eva isn't exactly a model parent, either. She makes little effort to hide her resentment over her lost life and coos, "Mommy was happy before Kevin came along" to her toddler's face.

Later, when Kevin (played as a toddler, child and adolescent by Rock Duer, Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller, respectively) tries to force Eva to mother him by refusing to potty train, she teaches him violence by example. He's a sharp study: On the eve of his 16th birthday, Kevin masterminds a mass execution at his high school.

click to enlarge Tilda Swinton, bad mother lover
  • Tilda Swinton, bad mother lover

Related Stories

  • Tom Hiddleston Wants to Play a Normal Guy

    Tom Hiddleston can pull off extreme looks. In The Avengers, he strutted around in Loki's 2-foot-tall, horned helmet. In Midnight in Paris, he finessed F. Scott Fitzgerald's prim finger waves. And in his latest, Jim Jarmusch's vampire romance, Only Lovers Left Alive, Hiddleston lounges bare-chested in velvet-cuffed robes. The only...
  • Henry Rollins: Juice Cleanse Mania 7

    I have lived in Los Angeles for many years and, for the last couple of decades, in Hollywood. For me, it's just where I live. Seemingly it is for some a state of mind, a "way of being." I occasionally get letters informing me that something has happened to me, that...
  • We'd Like to Help the Academy

    The Oscars may be as much of a meritocracy as most high school elections, but that doesn't mean they can't serve as a force for good. Despite how easy it is to entirely dismiss the entire affair — and the endless glad-handing and yearly coronation of undeserving winners make it...
  • Jim Jarmusch's Vampire Movie May Be His Best

    The vampires that walk among us — and they do — are not the Twilight kind, or the True Blood kind, or even the Buffy kind. In the world of Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, the director's most emotionally direct film since Dead Man and maybe his finest, period,...
  • Film Podcast: Only Lovers Left Alive Is One of Our Favorite Movies This Year

    Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston in Only Lovers Left Alive. On this week's Voice Film Club podcast, this paper's film critics discuss Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, starring Tom Hiddleston and David Gordon Green's Joe, starring Nicolas Cage. "I loved this movie so much," says film critic Stephanie Zacharek of the vampire film Only...

The movie's present day is roughly two years after the massacre, with Kevin in prison and Eva a drug-addled shut-in. When she manages to get off the couch long enough to get a shit job at a travel agency, she's slapped in the face in the parking lot by a still-angry townie.

Both Eva's waking hours and her dreams are invaded by visions of what Kevin did and of scenes from his childhood, which she fears led him to do it.

The film is essentially constructed as a long, associative montage, flowing back and forward in time at varying speeds. Mostly, there is blood or its symbolic equivalents.

At the start of the film, Eva wakes from a dream about the Spanish Tomatina festival (in which she imagines herself as a Christ figure wading through a red, tomato-pulp river of bodies) to find her house and car splashed with red paint. A wall of tomato soup cans is the backdrop for her panic attack in the grocery store; at home, she downs red wine compulsively.

In the film's second half, Ramsay often interrupts long stretches of flashback to briefly — and unnecessarily — remind us that, post-massacre, Eva is still trying to scrape red stuff off her windows and wash it off her hands.

As much as Eva suffers for Kevin's crimes, her complicity might go beyond parental responsibility.

Eva has such a tough time loving her son, in part because he is so clearly a reflection of her — which Ramsay underlines by repeatedly showing both dunking their faces into water, shot from under the surface. Mother and teenage son have the same angular, androgynous beauty and asymmetrical haircut; they're both pathologically narcissistic and obstinate outsiders in an American Dreamville whose kitsch Ramsay presents as grotesque.

In the film's best, strangest scene, Eva essentially asks her teenage son out on a date, as sugary doo-wop plays on the soundtrack, and the boy bites into a sandwich made from slices of white bread — with gooey red jelly in between.

Brilliantly edited by Werner Herzog's frequent collaborator Joe Bini, Kevin is at its best when at its fastest pace — when present and past, memory and hallucination crash together without distinction, mimicking Eva's point of view at her most damaged. (By design, Swinton's performance is never subtle; the character is a cartoon trapped in a haunted house.)

But late in the film, Ramsay slows into a more conventional flashback-and-forward style, fleshing out incidents and ideas we previously saw as fragments, making excessively explicit what she had already suggested and building to an anticlimactic big "reveal."

By treating Kevin's evil as a mystery to be solved, Ramsay only succeeds in making what was once allusive banal.

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN | Directed by LYNNE RAMSAY | Written by RORY STEWART KINNEAR and RAMSAY, based on the novel by LIONEL SHRIVER | Oscilloscope Laboratories | Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre | Opens Dec. 9 for a one-week qualifying run; will return to local theaters Jan. 27

Related Content

Now Showing

  1. Wed 16
  2. Thu 17
  3. Fri 18
  4. Sat 19
  5. Sun 20
  6. Mon 21
  7. Tue 22

    Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

    Sponsored by Fandor

Box Office

Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, concert and dining info & more!

Around The Web


  • Nicolas Cage's 10 Best Movie Roles
    As video-on-demand continues to become the preferred route of distribution for a certain kind of independent film, much is being made of Nicolas Cage's willingness to slum for a paycheck, with recent examples including already-forgotten, small-screen-friendly items like Seeking Justice, Trespass, Stolen, and The Frozen Ground. (His character names in these projects -- Will Gerard, Kyle Miller, Will Montgomery, and Jack Halcombe -- are as interchangeable as the titles of the films.) Aside from citing the obvious appeal of doing work for money (a defense Cage himself brought up in a recent interview with The Guardian), it's also possible to back Cage by acknowledging the consistency with which he's taken on "serious" roles over the years.

    David Gordon Green's Joe, which hits limited release this weekend (more details on that here), marks the latest instance of this trend, with Cage giving a reportedly subdued performance as an ex-con named Joe Ransom. In that spirit, we've put together a rundown of some of the actor's finest performances, all of which serve as proof that, though his over-the-top inclinations may make for a side-splitting YouTube compilation, Cage has amassed a career that few contemporary actors can equal. This list is hardly airtight in its exclusivity, so a few honorable mentions ought to go out to a pair of Cage's deliriously uneven auteur collaborations (David Lynch's Wild at Heart, Brian De Palma's Snake Eyes), 1983's Valley Girl, 1987's Moonstruck, and Alex Proyas's Knowing (a favorite of the late Roger Ebert).

    --Danny King
  • Ten Enduring Conspiracy Thrillers
    With the approaching release this week of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, many critics, including L.A. Weekly’s own Amy Nicholson, have noted the film’s similarities (starting with the obvious: Robert Redford) to the string of conspiracy thrillers that dominated American cinema during the 1970s. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a list of ten of the most enduring entries in the genre -- most of them coming from the ‘70s, but with a few early-‘80s holdouts added in for good measure. This is by no means an exclusive list, and more recent films like Roger Donaldson’s No Way Out (1987), Jacques Rivette’s Secret Defense (1998), Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State (1998), Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana (2005), and Redford’s own The Company You Keep (2012) speak to how well the genre has sustained itself over time. Words by Danny King.
  • Behind the Scenes of Muppets Most Wanted
    "The endurance of the Muppets isn't just the result of the creative skills of Henson and collaborators like Frank Oz, or of smart business decisions, or of sheer dumb luck," writes this paper's film critic Stephanie Zacharek in her review of Muppets Most Wanted. "It's simply that the Muppets are just ever so slightly, or maybe even totally, mad. Man, woman, child: Who can resist them? Even TV-watching cats are drawn to their frisky hippety-hopping and flutey, gravely, squeaky, squawky voices." Go behind the scenes with the hippety-hopping Muppets with these images.

    Read our full Muppets Most Wanted movie review.

Now Trending