The opening scene of We Need to Talk About Kevin involve a bizarre giant mosh pit filled with buckets and buckets, barrels worth, of tomato sauce. It goes on and on. The viewer becomes impatient. Still, it continues.
When the scene finally ends, it gives way to not one, but a series of flashes of very different scenes, none long enough to make any real sense. Eventually, like a child being disciplined, it becomes clear that you need to sit still and take it. You’re not going to get any quick or clear explanations. You settle in for the long haul. You hope the payoff will be worth it. It is.
Tilda Swinton is just extraordinary, in a role that can’t have seemed even possible to play when reading the script. She’s the mother of a teenage boy who has done about the worst thing a teenage boy can do.
The other performers, notably Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller as the child and teenage Kevin, are exceptional as well. John C. Reilly is also excellent, but we don’t see as much of him, though it’s hard to know whether, or how much, that contributes to what finally happens.
The movie has no easy answers, no answers at all in fact, for questions that almost surely have no answer. How much discipline? How much love? How much is nature, and how much nurture? Can a boy be born bad? Can people living in the same household live in different realities?
Instead, it spends its time exploring these people, giving substance to things that can ordinarily only be talked about and never embodied—this particular boy, this particular mother, these other family members, and those other mothers, whose children were the victims of this particularly horrific event.
There is nothing wasted, nothing extraneous, in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Events unfold in three chronologies, shuffled like decks of cards (once the three stories sort themselves out, you’re never confused about which you’re watching): Kevin and his mom, from his birth onward; mom, and eventually Kevin, on the horrific day; and mom, and eventually Kevin, in the frozen, undead days and months that followed.
Tilda Swinton’s portrayal of a woman dragging herself through one day after another, in the shell of her former self, has to be seen to be believed. This story needs to be seen, not to be believed—nothing can make the unbelievable believable—but because it at least makes it it seeable. Few movies try something this hard. A very rare fewer still, succeed.
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