Director makes successful, terrifying film after nine years

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Review

Tilda Swinton has a tough day in “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” (Photo courtesy of BBC Films)

The evil-little-boy genre is a tried and true offshoot of horror cinema, and films like “The Omen” are classics for a reason. However, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a much more plausible and disturbing film. There are no supernatural forces at work here and no demonic emblems, just a malicious little monster of a boy and the mother caught firmly in his crosshairs.

The mother in question is Eva (Tilda Swinton), a free spirit who reluctantly settled down with Franklin (John C. Reilly) to start a family. The film floats freely through Eva’s experiences with her first child, Kevin (Ezra Miller), beginning with her living alone in a dilapidated house and slowly revealing the details of her agonizing descent to rock bottom.

Before “Kevin,” Lynne Ramsay hadn’t made a film in nine years. Thankfully, her hiatus did nothing to dilute her talent. “Kevin” is a challenging, disturbing gut-punch of a film, filled with nightmarish sequences and smart, subtle performances. Ramsay moves deliberately through Eva’s life, slowly parceling out information about Kevin’s horrific actions even as she draws parallels between the two. While a few of her villain’s creepier moments are a bit too much (particularly a scene where an adolescent Kevin shouts “Die! Die!” at a TV as he plays videogames), Ramsay mostly operates with admirable restraint, telegraphing where the film is going rather clearly, but holding enough back to make the hard-hitting final moments land with maximum impact.

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” would flounder if the actress portraying Eva was unconvincingly brittle, or if the various actors portraying Kevin were cartoonishly evil, but “Kevin” is expertly cast and acted. Swinton gives the best performance of here, delivering a tour de force as a mother with no maternal instincts, torn between her biological obligation to and growing rivalry with her son, and Swinton sells every bit of her conflicted character. Swinton’s performance is filled with subtle moments, such as the pure exasperation on her face as an infant Kevin sobs relentlessly or the disappointment in her eyes as Kevin finds another way to break her down, but each moment adds to a larger picture of a bewildered, incorrigibly stubborn woman locked in battle with her own offspring.

Kevin is played by three different actors at different stages of his adolescence, and Ramsay found three uncannily similar actors to portray her titular monster. Miller takes on the bulk of the role as a teenage Kevin, and his expert manipulation of his parents makes for a chilling, memorable role for the young actor. Meanwhile, younger versions of the character, played by Jasper Newell and Rock Duer, are suitably menacing. The film’s sparse supporting cast is rounded by Reilly, whose fatherly cluelessness is offset by Reilly’s inherent likability, making the film’s finale all the more tragic.

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” is a stylistic marvel thanks to Ramsay’s bold color scheme and dreamy (or is it nightmarish?) direction. But the elegant, harrowing duet between Swinton and Miller is the real triumph here. Even when “Kevin” is terrifying, it’s impossible to look away from these intense performances as Ramsey’s film slowly sinks its hooks into you and then refuses to let go long after the credits have rolled.

Printed on Friday, February 3, 2012 as: 'Kevin' delivers chills, horror