We Need to Talk About Kevin is right on the razor's edge of greatness. It's not all the way there, but it's close, with solid performances, editing, music, and sound design apparent from the outset. Tilda Swinton (primarily) and John C. Reilly (in a smaller part) tackle an innovative topic with vigor. That topic? Where do "bad" kids come from? And what is the parent's burden for their deeds?
Kevin (played expertly by Jasper Newell as a child and Ezra Miller as a teen) is troubled. This much is apparent to his mom (Tilda Swinton), and though it's difficult to unwind the reasons for their contentious relationship, he's clearly messed up. A myriad of reasons are considered, from video games, to lack of structure and discipline, to a doting father, or perhaps it is Swinton's impatience with him? Whatever the case, he's a smart and brutal child, and he plays Mom and Dad (Reilly) against each other with verve. Kevin takes particular joy in making his mom's life difficult, though it's clear that they are bringing mutual misery to each other. Mom can't figure out how to connect with Kevin, Dad can't see the problem, Kevin smiles one instant and sneers the next, completely unpredictable and emotionally unreachable. The family is clearly headed for turmoil, though the film jumps back in time to show you multiple facets of the equation. Kevin's little sister is in a few of those scenes, Celia (played by Ashley Gerasimovich), and she's the light to Kevin's darkness, the dream child Tilda Swinton's character can adore in the way that John C. Reilly's character loves Kevin.
Red permeates the entire running time of We Need to Talk About Kevin. Red tomatoes, red jelly, red stoplights, red paint, red dresses, red wine, red lipstick, red is everywhere in the color design here, all hinting at the larger tragedy that is Swinton's existence. The film opens with a few minutes of silence, a reliable mood setter, but we're quickly thrown into Swinton's current situation, a reality that's perilously close to madness. Something has clearly happened to send her down an isolated and depressed path, but what? That "what" is the central reveal of the film, and the main point of ponder for the audience.
Jonny Greenwood's (of Radiohead) score for the film is filled with both dread and nostalgic Americana. Leadbelly's "Ham and Eggs" is covered, as is the classic country song, "Mule Skinner Blues". The effect is extremely creepy, especially once you throw that aforementioned red light all over the screen, as director Lynne Ramsay has. Speaking of Ramsay, her direction is confident and composed, completely in control, allowing the actors and crew to deliver their best for her. The sound design is also nearing perfection, there are jarring scenes of a heavy duty sander being used to strip paint off a wall, which segues into a screaming child, and then to a jackhammer, before going back to the sander. It's sound that evokes emotion, a rarity, sound that has an active physiological effect.
Part horror, part drama, part cautionary tale, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a film that will lodge in your memory long after the end credits. Striking visuals enhance a complex and compelling modern tragedy, with the only weak aspect coming from the total darkness that is Kevin. A more balanced portrayal of a child gone wrong might have pulled at a few more heartstrings instead of strumming only the "I'm terrified of what he'll do next" strings. Still, this was clearly a conscious choice by the team involved with We Need to Talk About Kevin, and director Lynne Ramsay clearly executed the film she wanted to make. Mostly great, slightly jarring, and continually gripping, We Need to Talk About Kevin is film worth crowing about.