What we really need to talk about is the fraudulence of Lynne Ramsay’s overripe collage of bright colors, smug pop music, and flimsy characterizations. The acclaimed Scottish filmmaker’s first film since 2002’s Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin is all fatuous mood, a purposefully fragmented evocation of a woman’s fraught state of mind. Ramsay both sets the film’s incoherent tone and states her stale feminist agenda immediately with a shot of Eva (Tilda Swinton) being hoisted by a throng of tomato-doused revelers at Buñol’s El Tomatino festival. Just as there’s no sense of this artfully photographed vision as memory or fantasy, Eva’s unmistakably Christ-like pose makes clear who the victim is in this story about a troubled mother-son relationship.
First, though, let us talk about Gus Van Sant’s Béla Tarr-biting Elephant, how its fussily minimalist aggrandizement of the Columbine massacre has informed the way other films, both good (Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique) and bad (Antonio Campos’s Afterschool), regard high school tragedy. Like Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sean Durkin’s spawn of Afterschool, this particular breed of sociopath porn prides itself on abstracting meaning out of the meaningful; almost none of them are concerned with contemplating the void from which they all seem to echo out of. But We Need to Talk About Kevin is the worst for the way it spikes Elephant’s fashionable nihilism with Alan Ball’s puerile flair for sensationalism.
Something close to Miranda July’s worst nightmare, We Need to Talk About Kevin presents the horror of Eva’s relationship to her sociopathic son, from pamper-wearing infancy to mopey, obliques-blaring teenagehood, out of sequence. Ramsay freely collages incidents from this mother and son’s past and present, with the color and shape of Tilda Swinton’s hair about the only thing rooting us in a particular time and place. If one wanted to be kind, the purpose of this fractured storytelling is to leave the audience feeling as unmoored as the film’s protagonist, who endures the relentless and inexplicable cruelty of her monstrous offspring with the tenacity of Christ on the cross. But if one wanted to be right, the purpose of Ramsay’s hodgepodge approach is to distract us from the flimsiness of a story that suggests a snide art-house take on The Omen.
I haven’t read the novel by Lionel Shriver on which the film is based, but in a recent article for Slate, the author speaks of pregnancy, to Eva, as “an infestation,” and her world travels as a means for the character to assert her superiority over others. From this we may glean that Eva possibly did travel to Buñol at one time, that the cartographic wallpaper inside one of the rooms in her luxe manse, like the job she takes in the present day at a travel agency, expresses her search for worldliness, but we shouldn’t have to look to the book to help us make sense of the film. Because We Need to Talk About Kevin fails to articulate Eva’s desire to travel, it means nothing that the walls in her favorite room are covered in rare maps instead of, say, pink elephants when the malicious Kevin charges into his mother’s study with a paint-loaded squirt gun in hand.
Here and there you grasp a glimmer of a point to the litany of horrors Eva is forced to endure, from Kevin, well past the age that he should be using diapers, deliberately craps himself after his mother has wiped his bum, to his feigning, as a teenager (played by Afterschool star Ezra Miller), interest in mother-son QT, which begins pleasantly enough at a miniature golf course before leading to a combative dinner he purposefully enters into on a full stomach. In Swinton’s face you sometimes sense the nature of Eva’s almost existential torment, her wondering whether she deserves this abuse or not, whether motherhood means enduring so much pain, and when she flips Kevin the bird, how she wishes she didn’t have to any more. Her choice to persevere despite Kevin’s behavior at least explains why she allows herself to be humiliated by the family of the victims of a high school massacre committed by Kevin, the nature of which the audience pieces together from the shards of exposition Ramsay sprinkles throughout the film. Eva never gives up on her sociopathic offspring, and as such takes responsibility for his actions.
But Ramsay works on a more artificial, affected page than her star, such as cutesily transitioning between past and present (shades of Martha Marcy May Marlene abound), noxiously complementing Eva’s crisis whenever possible with cringingly on-the-nose pop tunes (whereas the use music throughout Polytechnique eerily hints at the characters’ troubles and desires, here it cartoonishly bolds what’s already obvious), and condescendingly painting Eva’s co-workers at the travel agency she goes to work at in strokes so broad it would make the writers of The Office, an intentional comedy, blush. The film’s trite sensory cues persistently undermine the nuance of Swinton’s handiwork.
So, we understand that Eva must have lost her fortune in the wake to her son’s trial for murder, but how she and her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) were able to afford their expensive digs back in the day is, like much in the film, deliberately and frustratingly left to our imaginations, particularly the nature of Kevin’s psychotic behavior. But that’s the point here, for Ramsay wants to leave us, like Eva herself at the end of this malicious film, asking why. Though Ramsay feigns philosophical profundity by suggesting, like some teenage connoisseur of Camus, that there’s no rationale for Kevin’s actions, that one isn’t necessary, the truth is that director doesn’t quite have the patience, humanity, and sensitivity to actually articulate a reason.