×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

We Need to Talk About Kevin

After a nine-year sabbatical from feature filmmaking, Scottish helmer Lynne Ramsay is back with a vengeance with "We Need to Talk About Kevin," an exquisitely realized adaptation of Lionel Shriver's bestselling novel.

With:
Eva - Tilda Swinton
Franklin - John C. Reilly
Kevin, Teenager - Ezra Miller
Kevin, 6-8 Years - Jasper Newell
Kevin, Toddler - Rocky Duer
Celia - Ashley Gerasimovich
Wanda - Siobhan Fallon Hogan
Colin - Alex Manette

After a nine-year sabbatical from feature filmmaking, Scottish helmer Lynne Ramsay is back with a vengeance with “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” an exquisitely realized adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s bestselling novel. In a rigorously subtle perf as a woman coping with the horrific damage wrought by her psychopathic son, Tilda Swinton anchors the dialogue-light film with an expressiveness that matches her star turn in “I Am Love.” Craft contributions, especially from lenser Seamus McGarvey and editor Joe Bini, round out an immaculate package that will rep catnip for crix and get auds talking, but may be too bleak for the mainstream.

On paper, Shriver’s distinctively voiced, Stateside-set first-person narrative might have seemed like a mismatch for Ramsay’s visually stylized, European-arthouse sensibility. But as she proved with her 2002 sophomore effort, “Morvern Callar,” Ramsay has no qualms about shearing great chunks of exposition from the texts she works with to get to the heart of the story. Here, as in her previous work, especially her 1999 feature debut, “Ratcatcher,” trained photographer Ramsay lets pure film technique do the heavy lifting in order to convey the desolate emotional climate that makes the central tragedy happen. To echo a key line Kevin speaks at one point, the look and tone of the film isn’t something that has to be understood in context; it is the context.

Pic unspools through a fluid system of flashbacks that require auds to pay close attention to the length of Swinton’s hair to know what’s happening when. Told chronologically, the story relates how travel-writer-turned-publisher Eva Khatchadourian (Swinton) and her photographer husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) awkwardly swap a boho hipster lifestyle in Gotham for upmarket suburbia to make a home for their son, Kevin (played as a toddler by Rocky Duer, as a 6- to 8-year-old by Jasper Newell, and finally, chillingly as a teen by Ezra Miller), and later his sister, Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich).

Although Eva and Franklin intentionally conceive Kevin out of love for each other, motherhood doesn’t come easily to this adventurous, fiercely independent, some might say selfish woman, especially when faced with an angry, colicky baby. At one point, she tells her toddler son while he’s angrily splattering the walls with baby food that, quite frankly, she’d rather be in Paris than sitting with him at that moment, an honest reaction many mothers feel but don’t usually dare articulate. The scene and others like it neatly establish the story’s unanswerable core conundrum: Is Kevin just a bad seed, or did Eva’s strained, unhappy first attempt at parenting turn him into a monster?

As in the book, it’s revealed fairly early on that at some point Kevin did something horrible and deadly at his high school that created a small avenging army of grieving parents, whom a now-alone Eva must constantly dodge and withstand abuse from in the film’s present tense. The finer details are meted out in small, cruel shocks (gore is minimal, but the telling details are no less disturbing). And just like the book, the pic saves its cruelest revelation for last, in a reveal even the most genre-trained auds might not see coming.

Ramsay and splicer Bini (best known for his work with Werner Herzog) devise some innovative edits, like one ironic match-on-action that juxtaposes a pregnant Eva, walking down a hallway surrounded by little girls in tutus, with a walk of shame down a prison corridor years later. But the quick fluttering between time periods, especially in the pic’s first half, may prove a bit too brittle and mannered for some viewers.

That said, when things settle down into longer, deeper breaths in the second half and the tragedy inexorably approaches, the technique pays off with tiny, close-up details, coming into their own as symbols or at least leitmotifs, some of which resonate with moments in Ramsay’s earlier work (like a curtain seen at the beginning that recalls “Ratcatcher”). Sound design by Paul Davies is similarly playful and foreboding; the whoosh of sprinklers has never been more menacingly deployed than it is here.

Present in every scene so that there’s no doubt that her character’s consciousness is filtering what’s seen, Swinton delivers a concrete-hard central perf that’s up there with her best work. Sporting dark hair and brown contact lenses to suggest Eva’s Armenian heritage, her naturally ghostly pallor effectively sets her apart from the more luridly colored townsfolk she settles uncomfortably among. Playing it straight for a change, Reilly has warmth but perhaps not as well developed as a character. That couldn’t be said of Kevin, who’s perfectly rendered by the three cannily cast thesps who play him, from stern-faced tot Duer to chilling Newell and finally the elfin-featured yet disarmingly deep-voiced Miller.

Soundtrack choices, particularly Lonnie Donegan tunes and golden oldie pop like the Beach Boys’ “In My Room,” work in unsettling counterpoint to the visuals, enhancing the sense of foreboding so vital throughout. The fact that the setting is worlds away from Ramsay’s usual working-class Scottish milieu somehow works in the pic’s favor, so that the slightly exaggerated Americana feel of the locations mirrors Eva’s estrangement from her community. Widescreen lensing by McGarvey is aces, as usual.

Popular on Variety

We Need to Talk About Kevin

U.K.-U.S.

Production: A BBC Films, U.K. Film Council presentation in association with Footprint Investments, Piccadilly Pictures, LypSync Prods. of an Independent production in association with Artina Films, Rockinghorse Films. (International sales: Independent, London.) Produced by Luc Roeg, Jennifer Fox, Robert Salerno. Executive producers, Steven Soderbergh, Christine Langan, Paula Jalfon, Christopher Figg, Robert Whitehouse, Michael Robinson, Andrew Orr, Norman Merry, Lisa Lambert, Lynne Ramsay, Tilda Swinton. Co-executive producers, Simon Greenall, Leslie Thomas, Suzanne Baron, Anthony Gudas Michael Corso. Directed by Lynne Ramsay. Screenplay, Ramsay, Rory Stewart Kinnear, based on a novel by Lionel Shriver.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Seamus McGarvey; editor, Joe Bini; music, Jonny Greenwood; music consultant, Rory Stewart Kinnear; production designer, Judy Becker; art director, Charlie Kulsziski; set decorator, Heather Loeffler; costume designer, Catherine George; sound (Dolby Digital), Ken Ishii; sound designer, Paul Davies; re-recording mixer, Robert Farr; visual effects supervisor, Sean H. Farrow; visual effects, LipSync Post; stunt coordinators, Stephen Pope, Chris Cenatiempo, Blaise Corrigan; line producer, Andrew Warren; associate producer, Philip Herd; assistant director, Ivan J. Fonseca; second unit camera, Tom Townend; casting, Billy Hopkins. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 12, 2011. Running time: 111 MIN.

Cast: Eva - Tilda Swinton
Franklin - John C. Reilly
Kevin, Teenager - Ezra Miller
Kevin, 6-8 Years - Jasper Newell
Kevin, Toddler - Rocky Duer
Celia - Ashley Gerasimovich
Wanda - Siobhan Fallon Hogan
Colin - Alex Manette

More Scene

  • Connie Britton BlogHer Summit

    Connie Britton on ‘Friday Night Lights’ Remake: ‘You Need to Let it Go’

    Connie Britton opened up at a fireside chat Wednesday at the #BlogHer19 Creators Summit in Brooklyn by talking about one of her most beloved roles — Tami Taylor in the fan favorite series “Friday Night Lights.” When asked if a remake of the sports cult film and Emmy-winning TV show is in the works she [...]

  • Mariah Carey Tracee Ellis Ross

    Mariah Carey, Tracee Ellis Ross Celebrate Biracial Heritage at “Mixed-ish” Premiere

    Mariah Carey and Tracee Ellis Ross embraced their “ish” at Tuesday night’s series premiere event for ABC’s “Mixed-ish” by reflecting on how their biracial identity makes working on the new show even more personal. “I’m just so thankful that this show exists,” Carey told the assembled crowd during a Q&A with series creator Kenya Barris. [...]

  • #WorldIsInOurHands Campaign

    Rainn Wilson, Rosario Dawson, Joaquin Phoenix And More Join #WorldIsInOurHands Campaign

    At the 44th annual Toronto Film Festival last week, in addition to attending red-carpet premieres and promoting films, some stars also joined in the fight to tackle the climate crisis. Antonio Banderas, Susan Sarandon, Joaquin Phoenix, Rainn Wilson, Rosario Dawson, Neve Campbell and Alfre Woodard are among the bold-faced names to join forces with the [...]

  • Hopper Reserve

    Dennis Hopper's Dying Wish: His Own Strain of Marijuana

    Even as celebrity brands are starting to flood the emerging Cannabis market, Hopper Reserve stands out. The brand was launched by Marin Hopper, Dennis Hopper’s daughter from his marriage to Brooke Hayward. Hopper Reserve is a gram of California indoor-grown flower, two packs of rolling papers, a pair of matches and a trading card either [...]

  • Lowell Smokes Cafe Marijuana

    With Cannabis Lounges, On-Site Consumption, Marijuana-Infused Meals Go Legit

    Can this century’s Roaring ’20s repeat history but with pre-rolled joints instead of whiskey flasks and soccer moms as the new flappers? This month, West Hollywood will see the opening of the nation’s first at least quasi-legal cannabis consumption lounge, officially dubbed Lowell Farms: A Cannabis Café, located at 1211 N. La Brea between Fountain [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content