Even sociopaths have mothers; a review of “We Need to Talk About Kevin”

We Need to Talk About Kevin opens with adventurer and author Eva Khatchadourian ecstatically immersed in La Tomatina, the Spanish festival that’s seen here as an orgiastic tomato fight.

At one point, Eva is even lifted by the crowd – legs straight and arms extended as if on a cross – while the streets literally flow with red.

Director Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morven Caller) builds on this imagery throughout her stunning adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel about a mother trying to come to grips with her son’s high school killing spree.

Jam oozes out of sandwiches; Eva tries to scrub a vandal’s red paint from her depressing post-catastrophe bungalow; Kevin seems most sinister when he has food in his hands.

In one particularly intense scene, in extreme closeup, Kevin surgically trims each fingernail with his teeth. Later, Eva delicately removes broken shells from her mouth as she eats her eggs.

Such devotion to and dexterity with motifs and symbols would seem overdone if not in the service of such a powerful narrative. The musical choices, too, are thoughtful and jarring – in a good way – like when Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” accompanies Eva’s harrowing drive home through a neighborhood of small ghouls on Halloween.

The film moves among three distinct times. One story tells of Eva (Tilda Swinton) and Franklin (John C. Reilly), a happy enough couple of considerable wealth, as they try to raise Kevin. We also follow Eva after the tragedy, as she tries to rebuild some semblance of a life, punctuated by weekly prison visits to sit silently – for the most part – with her murderous son. And we see quick glimpses of Eva at the moment between those two lives, as she hears of a tragedy at the high school and goes in search of her son.

We Need to Talk About Kevin might seem fantastical if we didn’t know from recent history that high school killers and sociopaths exist. They may be exceedingly rare, but they are brutally real. The film poses many questions, but they all stem from one core issue: are soulless killers like Kevin born or made?

The viewer plays the what if game. What if Eva had been warmer to Kevin in his infancy? What if Kevin had never had a younger sibling – a bright-eyed happy girl that seems his antithesis? What if his parents had found a way to potty train him earlier? What if Eva had a better relationship with her own parents? What if Eva and Franklin had not taken the family the soulless suburbs? What if Eva had given up her travels – referred to only in passing dialogue – and spent more time with her son? What if . . .

It’s an endless game – one that is both unavoidable and pointless. We’ll never fully grasp Kevin, but the accumulating tension supports only one conclusion: Kevin was destined to be a killer even in the womb.

As Eva, Tilda Swinton projects unknowable grief, occasionally mixed with a kind of nobility. She’s lean and hard, which makes a few tender moments with her husband and children all the more effective. John C. Reilly’s Franklin is a warmer character, but he never understands Kevin’s malevolence. He thinks that if Eva would just . . . fill in the blank.

Three young actors play Kevin – they are all superb. Rock Duer (son of actor/model Joe Duer whom I knew slightly a decade ago) gets the character’s life off to a dark, distant start, and then Jasper Newell runs with it from there. They’re both perfect physically too – totally believable as the same child and as younger versions of Ezra Miller’s Kevin.

I raved a couple of days ago about Miller’s work in Another Happy Day, and I’m ready to rave again. There was considerable emotional range in that part, but here Miller is tightly circumscribed, bound within the sociopath’s limits. And he pulls it off with a malevolent beauty. He’s sinister and seductive. Even when it’s certain where the film is headed, we want to watch Kevin, to know Kevin, to look into his eyes and listen through his lies for some clues to the darkness.

There might be a few too many scenes with a shellshocked Eva walking down modernity’s sterile hallways – school, hospital, grocery, prison. And there might be a few too many plot checkmarks on the how-to-tell-if-your-child-is-a-sociopath list. There might not be enough screen time for Ezra Miller. Eva might be a little too much of a societal pariah.

But those feel like really minor quibbles compared to what Ramsay and the entire team have achieved here.