There’s no denying that Tilda Swinton gives a tour de force performance in director Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin. No less can be expected from one of the most talented working actors in the business, but the downside is that hers is a tour de force performance trapped in a decidedly incongruous and shallow movie that explores teen violence though it has no interest in providing insight.
Swinton stars as Eva Khatchadourian, a travel writer whose oldest child, Kevin (played by three young actors as the character ages) torments her from birth through to the moment he commits a heinous, bloody crime at about age 15. No definitive reason is given for Kevin’s malevolence — by the end of the movie not even he can articulate one. It was perhaps predetermined, or possibly he sensed his mother’s resentment of the disruption to her bohemian life.
Whatever the reason, Kevin seems hellbent on making life difficult. As an infant, he screams incessantly (to the point that Eva can only find relief by walking his baby carriage past a busy construction site); as a toddler (played by Rocky Duer) he’s a slow learner but a talented, destructive brat; and as an adolescent (Jasper Newell) he provokes Eva into a violent outburst that leaves him with a broken arm — which he immediately and uncannily uses as leverage against her. He’s also less than pleased when mom and dad (John C. Reilly) decided to have a second child.
It’s as a teenager, however, that Kevin (now played by Ezra Miller) begins to blossom as a sociopath. He’s completely lacking in empathy and able to manipulate his parents with the ease of a virtuoso. His mother alone sees him what he, but no one will listen.
Ramsay tells the story via a series of carefully orchestrated flashbacks that give the story a nice flow as Eva, alone and self-medicating with pills and wine, is assaulted by memories of the whole ordeal. Swinton nimbly walks a treacherous tightrope in the process, shifting from beleaguered mom to selfish snob to emotionally shattered pariah with subtlety and fluidity.
Unfortunately, the movie can’t bear the weight of the overwrought melodrama heaped upon it, devolving into camp horror bordering on farce as Ramsay laces the story with ironic pop music, heavy-handed use of color symbolism, and a tone that borders on flippant. Arriving as it does on the heels of yet another real-life high school shooting rampage, the whole thing carries an air of bad taste.