Challenging cinema creates its own challenges for the film reviewer. Lynne Ramsay’s 2011 feature We Need to Talk About Kevin is a strong character piece that showcases a powerful performance from Tilda Swinton. It focuses on powerful themes and opens up discussion on a critical social issue facing contemporary America. It is also a deeply gruelling watch that is devoid of levity and warmth. Saying that the film is good is easy; it is a superb screen drama. Actually recommending that people track down and view the film is much harder. This is a relentlessly miserable experience.
Eva (Swinton) is a former travel writer, now living alone in a run-down house and subjected to ongoing hostility from her neighbours and community. Her teenage son Kevin (Ezra Miller) is incarcerated in a nearby prison. Her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) and daughter (Ashley Gerasimovich) are no longer with her. Through flashbacks, past events are slowly revealed that reveal Eva’s difficult relationship with her troubled son.
It is very obvious from the film’s earliest scenes that Kevin has committed some form of high school shooting. The spectre of that terrible violence hangs over every moment of the film. Eva’s present-day life is positively soaked in it. Someone anonymously douses her rental accomodation in red paint. A woman assaults her on the street. People stare at her walking past. A few attempt to awkwardly show sympathy, which only soaks her more liberally in pain and guilt. It is a hugely effective atmosphere for a film, but it is wretchedly heavy stuff. This is a hugely impressive piece of work, but it overwhelmingly feels like a piece of work that viewers are going to want to experience once.
While flashbacks show Eva’s relationship with her son from the point of his birth, they also push things into deeply uncomfortable territory. What if a mother does not like her child? What if she hates the experience of motherhood? Society impresses on us stories of the unbreakable bond between mother and child, and the joy of childbirth, and the fulfilment of parenthood – what, then, of the woman who experiences none of those things? Ramsay’s film, which is based on the Lionel Schriver novel, feels very much like an unwanted conversation about too difficult a subject matter. It is a bold and incredibly brave work, that pushes and needles its way into Eva’s experience in a blunt and invasive fashion.
Swinton is exceptional, as she nearly always is, but special note needs paid to Ezra Miller as Kevin. He is well-cast, with a more than passing similarity to Swinton, and undertakes the difficult task of portraying a character with no positive elements to him whatsoever. His calculating and petulant cruelty makes him so loathsome that is becomes difficult to sit through. It is a phenomenal piece of acting that subsequent works have not come close to matching, but I live in hope.
Some films simply exist to please an audience. Others allow the viewer to cathartically experience other, less positive sensations. We Need to Talk About Kevin seems purpose-built to emotionally bruise. It is a hard, heavy piece of work, so aggressively driven into a pit of despair that it almost fails to be upsetting. Instead it is a cold, perfectly formed two hours of dread. There are not many films quite like it.