"We Need to Talk About Kevin" is a psychological horror film about guilt, about a mother whose teenage son has done something horrible. We first meet Eva (Tilda Swinton), living alone as a pariah in her small town, barely scraping by doing menial office work, and living in constant fear of her hostile neighbors and the rest of the community. Many of them are angry with her, and perhaps they have good reason to be.
Through flashbacks, we learn about her son Kevin, played by a succession of babies, dark-haired, unsmiling little boys, and finally the coolly distant Ezra Miller as a teenager. We learn how Eva and her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) had very different parenting experiences with Kevin, who seemed like a perfectly normal child to Franklin, but was an unholy terror to Eva from the very beginning. As a baby, he would cry constantly, perhaps maliciously. As a toddler, he was sullen, unresponsive, and shunned Eva's attempts at affection. When he was older, there were power games and early signs of antisocial behavior. Was Kevin's abnormality due to Eva's harsh personality and early ambivalence towards motherhood? Or was there something more innately wrong with him? If so, where could the fault have come from, if not from Eva?
Directed by Lynne Ramsay, the film is a fever dream of painful memories that Eva sifts through in search of elusive answers, broken up by daily episodes of misery in the present day. The pace is often slow, and Eva's journey can be a bit meandering in the beginning, but it's all in service of a terrific build-up of tension that pays off with plenty of interest. By the time we find out exactly what Kevin did, the film is almost unbearably intense and emotionally harrowing. There are some particulars of the plot that are a little ridiculous if you think about them for very long, but Ramsay does a fine job of translating them cinematically, and making them work for the story on a thematic level. She also does a great things with the visuals, particularly the color red, which recurs throughout the film. Sometimes it appears in physical objects, and sometimes in abstract flashes, acting as a transitional element from past to present, from memory to reality and back again.
Then you have the performances. This is more exceptional work from Tilda Swinton, who plays Eva in two distinctly different states - first as the frustrated mother at war with a young son she is unable to connect with, and then as a haunted, guilt-ridden shadow of her formerly vibrant self. It's her work in the flashbacks that I found the most intriguing, because Swinton is so good at playing up the ambiguity of Eva's culpability. We're certainly sympathetic to her when Kevin behaves abominably, but there's a coldness to Eva that comes through at times, especially when she's trying to bargain and reason with a small child who is clearly not in a position to do either. I can't imagine the film without her at the center of it. John C. O'Reilly doesn't get much to do here except play another good-natured everyman, which he does here as well as he always does. Ezra Miller as teenage Kevin, however, was a good find. He manages to hold his ground with Swinton in several key scenes, and succeeds in making the audience question whether Kevin should really be considered the villain or the victim or both.
There has been no shortage of films about evil children over the years, but none as thoughtful or as effective as this one. The vital difference here is that the horror doesn't come from what Kevin does, or even from what he is, but from the possibility that the evil in him is a manifestation of some dark part of Eva. That's a far more awful thing to confront than demons or ghouls or a simple abomination of nature. Horror films - and for any parent, "Kevin" is definitely a horror film - rarely tap into these kinds of fears, probably because it requires navigating so much difficult emotional territory and asks so many uncomfortable questions. I don't think "We Need to Talk About Kevin" would have worked without Tilda Swinton's performance. And in other hands, it could have all gotten campy or trite very fast.
But between Swinton and Ramsay, "Kevin" is exceptional. It's easily the best horror film I've seen in ages, and one of the best films of last year, period.