Evil, at least now, has to manifest as a psychological disturbance. That people do cruel things to one another is a truth that lives somewhere beneath the fact of evil — these acts can be explained away by passion or economics. It’s only in the deeply sociopathic that evil occurs, those in whom the mind has been distorted in such a way that pitiless violence and mayhem can come from someone who smiles during the act. Sociopaths don’t know how to flinch.
Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) has a son who has done something monstrous because he is a monster. From birth, she has been the only one to whom Kevin (Rocky Duer, Jasper Newell, Ezra Miller as his age ascends) exhibits his darkness. We Need to Talk About Kevin tells Eva’s story in a fidgety montage, from her blissful pre-marriage era (being carried aloft out of the grotesque rioting joy that is La Tomatina) to her current status, living in a dilapidated, frequently vandalized house that she is gradually cleaning and repairing (yeah, it’s a metaphor) when she isn’t drinking wine. Director Lynne Ramsay (working from Lionel Shriver’s epistolary novel) cuts back and forth from Eva’s new life — finding a job, dealing with random confrontations — to the slow ordeal of raising Kevin. Early on, Kevin openly manipulates his mother, refusing to speak, eat, or potty train, except in the presence of his father, an affable photographer named Franklin (John C. Reilly). Ramsay slowly reveals the path that took Kevin to his defining moment: the massacre (via archery set) of his classmates in his school’s crowded gymnasium.
It doesn’t take long to figure out that something wretched is brewing in Kevin, and the film never gives you an opportunity to doubt it, with each scene bringing either open cruelty from him or at the very least a telltale, unsubtle leer or muttered snipe. The characters form early on and change little: Franklin never questions his son’s façade; Kevin remains the same shrieking demon he was as an infant; and Eva never stops trying to earn her son’s love. This is where Ramsay starts to ask too much: the film spends so long working through the catalogue of shitty things Kevin does that, by the time he starts putting pets in the garbage disposal, the horror inside him has become boring. When his mom makes attempt after failed attempt to earn at least some acknowledgement from him, everyone knows she’s pathetic before Kevin actually tears her apart. The characters become cartoonish, and Ramsay gives so much away in her over-structuring that you could fill in the rest somewhere during the second act. Her choice of a deliberately hokey soundtrack and some overbearing leitmotifs make it hard to understand if the film even really takes its central brutality seriously.
The film lingers on Eva’s new life, as though fascinated by how fragile and slight a person Kevin has made her. She visits him in prison regularly and continues to live near where his violence had its greatest effect. She mentions early that leaving Manhattan was an almost impossible choice for her, but now that the option has become available again, she chooses to remain in the suburbs. Despite the revulsion her son stirs in her, Ramsay makes sure we know that Eva needs Kevin — that, in a way she must know is twisted, she depends on him. What’s odd is that it’s also clear that Kevin needs his mom. Twice in the film, Kevin faces real, coherent fear, and the only person he dares show these vulnerable moments to is Eva. This makes it hard to understand Kevin as the pitiless archetype of evil he wants to be, and the film dares one to wonder if Kevin could have turned out okay if only he’d been aggressively disciplined. Eva’s one violent outburst at Kevin breaks his arm but also earns his respect, albeit briefly. It’s a weak thread, tied in awkwardly — it’s clear early that there’s no question of this film harboring a Kevin that could be understood as normal or okay. Which just makes you wish harder that Ramsay had decided whether or not she actually wanted her film to fit the adjective it never stops reaching for: unsettling.