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WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2012) (****)

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As a parent, I cannot imagine the depth of conflicting despair one might feel if their child committed an unthinkable act of violence. This reflective film tries to get into the mind of a parent whose son has done something horrible. We watch this morose mother sludge through the wreckage of her former life. Through a series of flashbacks we get glimpses of her memories of her child as if she's obsessing about the details that could explain his actions. There has always seemed to be something wrong with little Kevin.

Tilda Swinton plays the mother Eva in another performance worthy of praise. She was a woman full of life before she accidentally got pregnant with her son. As a baby he never stopped crying until his father Franklin (John C. Reilly, CHICAGO) returned home from work. It seemed this child was trying to drive her crazy. On a walk, the sound of a jackhammer is a welcome break from the wails of her child.

As Kevin becomes a toddler, he becomes even more defiant. He seemed to want nothing with his mother except torture her with bad behavior. As late as five years old he willfully rejects potty training as another form of torture on his mother. However he acts like a perfect angel when around his father. When Franklin begins a sentence "you just" when discussing how to deal with their son Eva looks at him with contempt and disgust. In one moment of total frustration Eva loses her temper with Kevin and hurts him. Instead of being scared Kevin looks upon his mother with respect and rewards her with a bit of kindness for having successively broken her.

Ezra Miller plays Kevin as a teenager in a performance that shows off the talent of this young actor. Now Kevin comes off as cold, calculating, intelligent and frightening. He willingly bonds with his father over archery but when his mother reaches out to him breaks down her seemingly pathetic attempt to bond with him in the most cruel fashion. When his younger sister arrived we fear for her, wondering what Kevin is thinking behind that smirk and stare.

In the present Eva is but a shell of the former self that we see in early flashback. She now lives alone in a small home in the suburbs where she can wake up in the morning to find her front porch or her car vandalized. She gets a data entry job at a travel agency where her co-workers stare at her like she is an alien. Simply walking down the street she could be accosted. When she goes to visit Kevin in prison, they just sit there in silence. What do you say?

Director Lynne Ramsay (MORVERN CALLAR), who wrote the script with Rory Kinnear, based on Lionel Shriver's novel, brilliantly doles out information about these characters and what happened to them, creating compelling tension. At first we don't know in the least why Eva is so down and out. But soon we get that something awful has happened. The full scope of Kevin's crimes are not revealed until the end. By that point we are willing to believe he is capable of anything. Editor Joe Bini should also receive great praise for keeping us engaged in the lives of these characters. It's like piecing together a mystery but not focusing on the who, what, where or when, but the why.

Ramsay's bold use of red stands as an obvious symbol of Kevin's violence, but also more subtly the constant mental torture Eva feels. Watch as she sands away the graffiti on the front of her house and the red dust covers her and it even stays in her hair when she goes on a job interview. Watch how red is associated with Kevin from his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and his toys. Like the color, violence is inescapable from both Kevin and Eva, which creates a twisted bond between the two characters.

Swinton's performance captures the depth of her character. While this story is in extreme example, any parent can relate to an obstinate child and the power plays those children play against their parents. Watch how Swinton's character reacts to moments of tenderness that Kevin gives her. Her love for her child shines through despite all of his cruelty towards her. One moment of kindness is like a drug that makes her instantly addicted — she wants to replicate the same high again. Unfortunately, Kevin is a drug dealer, who stops doling out that drug just so you can see his mother squirm. Swinton shows the full range of emotion she has for her son without dramatics. When we see her in the present, she has slipped into a pit of despair and it seems she will never be able to climb out. However, she is still alive and must carry on with her life. The question is how does she do that?

Like the authenticity of Swinton's performance, Miller crafts an eerily real sociopath. There have been many bad seeds in the history of cinema but Kevin is different because he never has that "cracked moment" where his mental instability shines through and ultimately exposes his evil to the world. Many bad seeds are cool and calculating and Kevin is like them, however because he never breaks, he is much scarier.

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN is a dual character piece. Surprisingly, the mentally disturbed character is the least interesting of the two. Would we remember the name Damien if Gregory Peck's character was more prominent in THE OMEN? Is Clarice Starling more interesting than Hannibal Lecter? If Marion Crane was more compelling than Norman Bates would the second half of PSYCHO even work? Kevin's name might be the title but this is Eva's story. The film gives a new perspective on the psychopath genre. How would you feel if you gave birth to a madman?

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Rick DeMott
Animation World Network
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