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On Movies: 'We Need to Talk About Kevin' is emotionally shattering

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 8, 2012 - There are no ravenous ghouls or razor-toothed space lizards in “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” but it is a horror movie all the same.

It is not the kind of film that has a ghastly surprise lurking behind every stairwell and a major stunner saved for the climax. You pretty much know what is going to happen from the beginning – think Columbine, Colorado, or Chardon, Ohio. Yet the story is emotionally shattering and the climax is understated but horrifying.

The movie was shot with a clean, uncluttered look and pruned to a narrative simplicity by Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay (“Ratcatcher”). It focuses on a mother and her son. Eva (Tilda Swinton) gives up a promising career and sophisticated social life to raise baby Kevin, and devotes herself to the task to the point of constant, tearful exhaustion; yet he never responds to her attempts to embrace him with maternal love.

Almost literally from the moment of his birth, for no apparent reason, he seems to detest her. And, it turns out, it’s not just Eva he hates, although for most of the film she takes the brunt of his vicious and intense misanthropy. Indeed, he is peversely skillful at hiding it from others.

The film refuses at any point to use sentimentality to relieve the tension between mother and son, refuses to give Eva or the audience a break. Kevin is not just going through a stage. As he grows older, steadfast in his hatred of his mother, two ominous events add to the poisonous mix: He takes up archery, and a younger sister is born. The mother is painfully torn between trying to love her son and trying to protect her daughter, and the dilemma adds to the sense of helpless, tragic inevitability that charges every scene.

Meanwhile, Kevin cons his busy father (John C. Reilly) into believing his son is just a normal unruly kid – or maybe the man, who is seldom home, is just pretending there’s nothing seriously wrong with Kevin because he is terrified to admit that his son is psychopathic.

The movie begins in the present, in the aftermath of unexplained horrible deeds by Kevin, with Eva alone and practically barricaded in a house splashed with red graffiti. She is cursed and even physically attacked in the streets when she ventures forth, openly hated by the community whose children her son attacked. The neighbors blame Eva for Kevin’s actions, unwilling, perhaps, to admit what Eva learned all too quickly – there was something broken in Kevin that nothing, not even a mother’s love, could repair.

Then, the filmmakers tell the story of mother and son in a series of flashbacks beginning with Eva’s pregnancy, when she is buoyant with hope. From that point, “We Need to Talk about Kevin” is relentless in its progress toward the bitter end we know is coming.

Swinton’s performance is an eloquent portrayal of desperation and wounded maternal love, and the two boys who play Kevin in most of the movie are both extraordinary. They are Jasper Newell as a 6-year-old who is still, perversely, in diapers, and Ezra Miller as a teenage loner who plays with lethal weapons.

The film is undeniably powerful, indeed devastating. Whether, in the end, it is emotionally or intellectually satisfying – whether there is gain for the pain -- is another question.

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” can be grueling to watch, and we learn nothing, except perhaps that there is not always a rational explanation for the existence of evil. Maybe that’s enough. In any event, “We Need to Talk about Kevin” is definitely a horror movie, but don’t expect to see any vampires and zombies, and don’t count on a happy ending.

Opens Friday March 9

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