We Need to Talk About Kevin (***)

If you were to ask me about my thoughts on ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ directly after seeing it back in September, I would have said that it was one of the biggest disappointments of 2011 (besides ‘The Tree of Life’ and ‘Attack the Block’) for me. Stewing over it some more, I’ve come to find that the pluses outweigh the minuses here.  I still think that I like it less than almost all of the other Oscar pundits, but the excellent lead performance by Tilda Swinton and the unsettlingly good turn by Ezra Miller (he’s actually the film’s highlight in my eyes) supersede co-writer/director Lynne Ramsay’s filmmaking missteps.  It’s a love it or hate it type of direction she takes, and if not for Swinton and Miller, I might be leaning to towards the latter.  When it comes to the acting, the film is rather top notch for the most part.  When it comes to the writing and the directing, however…it’s a whole other story.  Too flawed to be the masterpiece that the reviews out of Cannes suggested, this still is a unique enough take on familiar material to be worth the recommendation from me, even if it’s not quite on the level as a somewhat similar film from earlier this year called ‘Beautiful Boy’.  Still, the pros outweigh the cons here.

A rather impressionistic take (in my eyes at least) on parenting and tragedy, the story follows Eva (Swinton) some time after an important event.  We don’t immediately know what it is, only that people are shunning her and dousing her car and house in red paint.  As she goes about her day to day life in a sort of fog, we flash back and forth to other events in her life, including meeting her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), the birth of her son Kevin (Ezra Miller as the teen, Jasper Newell in childhood, and Rock Duer as a toddler), and her issues bonding with him.  As he grows older, he seems to get more and more troubling in his behavior, as well as increasing in his distaste for Eva.  By the time he’s a teen, he’s frankly become pretty damn evil.  We now realize that Kevin has committed a horrible crime that the town blames Eva’s parenting for, but until the final scenes we don’t quite know how bad it is.  And trust me…it’s bad.

I freely admit that Tilda Swinton doesn’t always wow me as much as she does many others, but she’s excellent here…perhaps doing her second best work to date (for me, her topper is in Tim Roth’s film ‘The War Zone’).  She’s incredibly vulnerable here, looking at times almost like a zombie, paralyzed by events she sees as being beyond her control.  Swinton is always good, but she’s exceptionally strong here, getting under the skin of the character and questioning if she’s to blame for the deeds of her son.  Matching and perhaps exceeding her is Ezra Miller, who radiates terror as the bad seed son.  Both Duer and Newell do their parts, but Miller really goes the extra mile in a fantastic way, crafting a truly terrifying character in what amounts to only a medium sized part.  The scenes between Miller and Swinton are like chess matches, with more at stake than you think at first.  Swinton might be too subtle for an Oscar nod, but Miller is incredibly deserving of one.  He’s one of the better young actors working today.  Though the screenwriting lets them both down at times, their acting skill keeps things afloat.  Without these two performances, I can safely say that I wouldn’t have cared much for this flick at all.  John C. Reilly is fine, but he seems slightly out of place in the film.  The cast more or less begins and ends with the tag team of Miller and Swinton, who both go above and beyond.

Lynne Ramsay has never done much for me as a filmmaker, and her she doesn’t exactly change my opinion.  At first some of her artistic choices as director are interesting, but she overplays her hand and it becomes distracting, especially the theme of Red.  It’s all red, all the time, and it gets pretty annoying by the third act, when it’s most important.  Also, she elects to unfurl the plot out of sequence, which is fine…except for the odd times she decides to move in sequence.  It’s an inconsistency that bugged me.  On the script side, Ramsay and Rory Kinnear (basing this one the novel by Lionel Shriver) fragment the story in a way that limits its effectiveness.  I applaud them for doing something a little bit different than the premise would suggest, but it wasn’t enough in my eyes.  A better screenplay or more steady direction would have been welcome here, but luckily for Ramsay and her puzzle like film, her actors save this.

‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ is a film that I’m ultimately recommending for the acting, but bear in mind that I wasn’t nearly as impressed as just about every other critic around the globe was.  Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s not.  I think that you should check this out when it opens and decide for yourself.  I know I’m going to be in the minority on this one, but it’s happened before and it will no doubt happen again.  Two wonderful performances elevate an otherwise mediocre movie here, and if you can handle the flawed nature of it, you should leave the theater sufficiently moved by Swinton and horrified by Miller.

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