We Need to Talk About Kevin is the first film by indie darling Lynn Ramsay since Morvern Callar (2002) and is quite possibly her biggest to date. Based on the award-winning novel of the same name by Lionel Shriver, it stars Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly and Siobhan Fallon Hogan. The premise of the film follows Eva Khatchadourian (Swinton), a wayward mother, who attempts to understand the reasoning behind her sociopathic son’s mass murder. The film is largely divided by flashbacks of her son’s Kevin’s uneven physical and psychological development from infancy to teenage adolescence, and Eva’s life in the aftermath of her son’s massacre as she becomes the town pariah and scapegoat.
Unlike Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (based on the Columbine Shooting) or the expressed fantasies of murderous teens in films such as Zero Day and The Basketball Diaries, the perpetrator of the story has no emotional connection, moral ambivalence or logical reasoning to his actions. As a result, there are no heroes (or even tragic heroes) to the story. There are only a long list of victims that include Eva who lost her family and her ability to live peacefully in the town she had chosen to live in. Swinton, an often understated actress, quietly conveys much of desperation, fear and vulnerability in her performance as she provides the deliberative pulse of the film.
While Swinton gathers most of the attention for the film, the film’s true hallmarks rest on the scenes involving Ezra Miller’s performance as the teenage Kevin. Able to balance humor (City Island, Trainwreck), mental anguish (Afterschool, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) and that in between (The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Stanford Prison Experiment) with his own personal off-beat style, Miller portrays Kevin with a certain demented streak that is not pointed or specific but simply designed to inflict physical and psychological torment on those around him. Without Miller’s twitchy, nerve-wracking performance, much of the film will sink on its own quiet, artsy surface. In practically every scene that Miller graces the screen with his haunting presence, he dominates with the ease of a smirk or grimace. As the film sinks deeper into Kevin, it becomes more frantic and faster moving with the madness that swirls in Eva’s head being replicated for the audience to experience underneath the pleasant popular music contradictory to the subject matter and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s ondes martenot meets piano musical score (reminiscent of his 2003 score Bodysong).
Unfortunately, Ramsay uses an extraordinary independent approach to the film and does not give it the appropriate amount of size that it deserves. With its nervy tension, nonlinear sequencing and spacious atmospherics, it often feels thin and slow until about an hour into the run time. When getting into the zeitgeist of Kevin, the narrative continuously pulls you back into some other portion of time exploring subplots involving Eva’s travel writing career and her relationship with her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), which become less interesting and important as the film transpires. The film ultimately avoids a traditional frame of Kevin’s murderous mayhem in favor of its aftermath. Although done with artistic expression and style, it doesn’t move or grab hold of its message as it should. While certainly unconventional, the film would have been a more compelling experience had it tackled the subject with concentration instead of indie pretension.