The Baddest Seed
What We Talk About When We Talk About We Need to Talk About Kevin
Adapted from a novel by Lionel Shriver and brought to the screen by Lynne Ramsay—the Scottish director behind 1999's celebrated Ratcatcher—We Need to Talk About Kevin is a deeply creepy movie about motherhood, memory, and violence built around a quietly ferocious performance by Tilda Swinton. In advance of the film's Seattle premiere, Bethany Jean Clement and David Schmader watched the film and were suitably freaked out.
BETHANY JEAN CLEMENT: Dave, we need to talk about We Need to Talk About Kevin. I watched the DVD screener all alone, late at night. I had to read a long article in a travel magazine afterward in order to fall asleep. I'm still somewhat unsettled, and that was five days ago. You watched it, too—though maybe I'm biologically predetermined to be more freaked out by it? It's not a spoiler to say that the film is about a woman who gives birth to a proverbial bad seed—like, a really bad seed. Tilda Swinton plays the mother, and she's pretty much just stricken-looking throughout. She's very good at being stricken-looking. Those eyes! They say, "USE BIRTH CONTROL, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT MIGHT COME OUT."
DAVID SCHMADER: About that "stricken- looking" thing—it's worth mentioning that WNTTAK was originally scheduled to open in Seattle right around Oscar nomination time, with Swinton pegged as a nominee for best actress. But she wasn't nominated, and the film's opening was unceremoniously bumped back until after Oscar season. I have no doubt that Swinton's performance is better than several of those that got nominated, but I can't really say Swinton was robbed. It's such a chilly performance, with such a tight range of expression—I can understand why it failed to win the hearts of people who enjoyed watching Michelle Williams impersonate Marilyn Monroe. That said, the chilly strickenness of Swinton's performance is key to the movie's power, suggesting Kevin's mother's complicity in her son's skewed development. And yeah, the whole movie freaked me out enough to mess with my sleep, too, but in a way that left me suspicious and slightly resentful. Underneath all the sophisticated structural choices and world-class acting, is Kevin just a stylishly exploitative horror movie?
BJC: It definitely feels that way at times—both her child (a couple of child actors, then Ezra Miller) and her husband (John C. Reilly) are almost comically two-dimensional, there only to create and further The Horror. The lumbering, oblivious husband is all, "Maybe it's YOU who's the problem here, honey—he's just a kid!" And the kid, at what looks like age 5, stares daggers at her while breaking crayon after crayon—she's trying to explain the facts of life to him, as his little sister is on the way—and he says, so sourly and evilly, "Is this about FUCKING?"
An argument could be made that this female director has made a feminist film, because it humanizes this woman who produces this horrible offspring. But then it's absolutely horror-filmy: prurient, voyeuristic, and, at moments, laughably pat. She's also powerless—this terrible, terrible being is visited upon her, shades of Rosemary's Baby, and there's never anything she can do, even though she's a grown, apparently strong woman and can see the writing on the wall. When your teenage son is torturing domesticated animals, it's time to take some steps, lady. Wait, am I victim-blaming?
DS: The film invites victim-blaming! I think that's tied to the fact that the whole story is told from the mother's perspective. These are her memories, recalled from the dark present vantage point, and there's an inherent unreliability to what we see. The memories that make her feel guilty are the ones she can't help picking at like scabs, and also the ones that make us "blame" her. It's a cool trick. I also must commend the cool-trickiness of the aforementioned two- dimensionality of Tilda's husband/Kevin's father. All memories of "fights with a loved one" involve a slight cartoonization of the person who's not you. What makes this shallow role great is Reilly, who does something like what Barbara Hershey did in Black Swan—bringing a cartoonish stereotype to life, or something like it. In contrast, the horror-show cartoonishness of teenage Kevin felt like more of a cop-out. Again, these are a guilty mother's memories, but the Kevin we're presented with is as monolithically evil as Darth Vader, born on the dark side. I imagine that's the point. This movie is A Mother's Nightmare.
BJC: And it's a nightmare that's artfully shot and maximally tense, from beginning to end, even when you realize what's going to happen. Those ominous, billowing sheer drapes in the suburban home—you just don't want to know what's on the other side.