I’ll never get used to living outside of the New York/Los Angeles inner-circle in cinematic terms, even if I was there it would not change the fact that I take umbrage with the end of year release patterns that delay viewership of many good films for those living in the rest of the country. I was going up to NYC and my plan was to catch this film during that trip, that plan hit a snag when I realized the limited one-week Oscar-qualifying engagement ended right before my planned trip. Thus, I have not had a legitimate chance to see it until just recently, and it becomes a 2012 BAM eligible film, and not a 2011 film, despite its technical release date.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a film that’s largely about perspective, memory and how that may influence the perception of reality. That’s not all its about but that certainly plays a large part. It tells the tale of Eva (Tilda Swinton) who is struggling to move on with her life after her son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), commits a mass murder at his high school. All that is established early on, and much of the narrative is her reflecting back on his upbringing, from his birth to the present.
Memories are built on one fact that lends us a clue to an incident and over time they become either hazy or gilded depending upon the emotion we associate with that memory. There is a truth to all she remembers but just how much embroidering her subconscious does in a futile search for answers is not clear. One of the best things the film does thematically is to not treat so difficult a subject with facility, but rather depth. There are precursors to the event but also other moments that belie it. Therefore, Kevin is not always a black and white antagonist he has moments of seemingly lucid humanity, which he then counteracts but any flatness of character can be an affectation of the storyteller’s, Eva’s, perspective. Having already lived these things and now reliving them in hindsight her associations and interpretations of relationships are set: Her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly) is placating, non-confrontational and an ineffectual parent and Kevin is opaque, she doesn’t know what goes on in his head, except that she feels constantly antagonized by him.
While the film functions on two planes, the present and past, for the most part it moves in relative chronology within those planes. Flashbacks typically are done as sequences. There are quick flashes when she encounters someone from her former life whom she is trying to separate herself from. This relative chronology does give the film a fairly even and steady pace that is truly only broken in occasions by the steadily increasing severity of Kevin’s actions. It’s a film that needs to be told as it is, for the story elements told in precise chronological order with no flashbacks whatsoever would not be effective at all. Instead you get a very cinematic treatment of the story, a story that visually takes you into its protagonist’s thoughts.
Much of my interest in this film was not just due to the amount of positive buzz I heard about the film itself on Twitter but also the praise being heaped upon Tilda Swinton, whom I love. I can see now why she got the attention she did, she is brilliant and understated in this film. With regards to her Oscar snub, I both get it and don’t get it: I get it because there’s not really a great clip moment, which is cliché but that seems to drive things in terms of perception, but I don’t get it because it’s just so good. There’s a tremendous understanding by her, and everyone in the film about acting for and into the edit. Things are done very precisely as if they know where the cuts are and what impact they’ll have. Clearly, this is also a credit to the editor and director, however, that point plays into the concept of not doing too much. It is a film and these actors employ film techniques and know the assist they’ll get on the technical end and exploit it greatly. It’s a must see for students of the craft.
Yet as much as this is is Eva’s and Swinton’s film she does get some tremendous support. Based on the aforementioned interpretation of his character John C. Reilly is perfectly cast. Granted he does have range but in his even tone he does come off as a man who would be a buddy style of father and wouldn’t harm a fly. Ezra Miller doesn’t have a tremendous amount of credits to his name as of yet but the roles he has taken thus far have been challenging and have made him one of the go to actors in indie films and perhaps he will find a crossover success soon. As for this film he plays the part to a tee, meaning though his actions might be mostly one note the way he plays them aren’t always.
Typically, when you have a character who is aged during the course of a story you don’t have significant screen time dedicated to all the actors who play said character, in this case three. Jasper Newell, who is the middle incarnation of Kevin, carries much of the middle of the film and is very impressive, even more so when you consider its his feature film debut. Not to be outdone there is another solid performance in the young cast by Ashley Gerasimovich, who has one of the great moments where the numbness you can feel watching it breaks as she engenders tremendous sympathy.
We Need to Talk About Kevin may not be an easy film to watch in a number of ways but it is all the more rewarding for it. All facets of the production contribute greatly to a mind-play wherein a mother is lost searching for answers about just how her child could do such a thing and if anything could’ve been done. It’s a visual tale that is truly pure cinema, it’s truly great.