If Douglas E. Winter is right about horror being an emotion and not a genre, then Lynne Ramsay’s shocker We Need to Talk About Kevin is the best horror movie not only of the past twelve months but perhaps also the upcoming twelve. Though its monster is of the all-too-human (instead of the supernatural) variety, its fragmented narrative, chillingly Kubrickian atmosphere, and supernaturally pale leads (Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller) lend an air of unease so great that most traditional horror fare looks wan.
Superficially, a great gulf separates We Need to Talk About Kevin from what we come to expect from horror. The key storyline following Eva Khatchdourian (Swinton, giving one of her best performances) as she attempts to rebuild something resembling a normal life after a senseless atrocity committed by her sixteen-year-old son Kevin (played by Rocky Duer as a toddler, by Jasper Newell at age eight, and finally with subzero sociopathic menace by Ezra Miller).
But dread follows her. Someone has splashed a bucket of red paint across the front of her house. As she leaves a job interview for a low-level travel agency she runs into a grieving parent who slaps her. When she leaves for her lunch hour she runs into one of her son’s wheelchair-ridden classmates; they make small talk, and he states, with a self-conscious smile, that he may walk again.
A coworker hits on her at her office’s joyless Christmas party, his lascivious smile turning to icy meanness when she declines his advances. These elements resemble the work of Raymond Carver, specifically "A Small, Good Thing," more than anything overtly horrific. Only a parade of children in Halloween costumes along her block, with Buddy Holly’s "Everyday" playing jarringly in the background, hint at some kind of dark carnival.
Spiked through these moments are flashbacks, and it’s here when We Need to Talk About Kevin’s existential terrors unfold. In her pre-maternal life, Eva was a travel writer who married the good-natured but ultimately clueless Franklin (John C. Reilly). Then Kevin comes along, and even before his birth she resents him. (Her obstetrician suggests during her pregnancy that she doesn’t want him to come out.) Though she and Kevin obviously share the same DNA (Swinton and Miller look so much alike as the movie progresses that he seems her doppelganger), he clearly is not of her, resembling instead some alien presence, a Midwich Cuckoo of modern American suburbia.
This becomes more evident as his behavior toward her becomes more calculatingly, quietly ferocious, then extends to his sister and finally, to others.
Much of We Need to Talk About Kevin’s success in this regard comes from Swinton and director Ramsay. As the movie opens a look of bliss crosses Swinton’s Eva Khatchdourian’s face as she crowdsurfs through Spain’s La Tomatina festival, but her eyes betray an ambivalence that follows her through her marriage and Kevin’s birth and rearing. And then Eva’s lack of affect itself transforms into a mirage; she grows frustrated by her inability to bond with Kevin (at one point taking her toddler to a construction site so that the sound of a jackhammer drowns his cries, and telling him that if it weren’t for him, she would be in France), angry with his increasing acts of defiance, and ultimately shattered by the aftermath of what he has done, yet she hides it all behind a detached mask. (When she visits Kevin in prison on his eighteenth birthday, she tells him he doesn’t look happy. “Have I ever?” he asks. It’s a question she easily could ask herself.)
Ramsay manages to squeeze behind Eva’s facade by turning her cold exterior inside out and laying it bare, exteriorizing her emotions in a series of often drab and colorless shots splashed with red. On occasion she tries too hard; the red motifs, working to brilliant effect at the tomato stomping festival and as she scrubs away red paint splattered across her house, less so when teenaged Kevin scoops huge dollops of strawberry jam onto bread, or as Eva stands in a grocery aisle dominated by tomato soup, smother the viewer in obviousness after a while, with shots smacking of an air of imitation Pedro Almodóvar.
But often Ramsay’s instincts serve her well. When a pair of missionaries stop by Eva’s home and ask her if she knows where she’s going in the afterlife, Eva responds "I’m going to Hell."
Glib though her answer is, she’s entirely serious. Ramsay co-wrote the screenplay with Rory Stewart Kinnear, from Lionel Shriver’s epistolary novel, changing Eva’s series of letters to Franklin into the sudden flashbacks punctuating Eva’s life after Kevin’s crime. This stylistic choice proves wise, as it makes the movie far more immediate and terrifying, and far less inclined to provide any easy answers. How did this monster come into being? Could it be, as Shriver’s novel hints, from Eva’s ambivalence during her pregnancy or during Kevin’s toddler years?
We Need to Talk About Kevin refuses to say because that question misses the point. It is not about horror, but how to live with it.