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Exploring the question of evil

WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN: Starring Tilda Swinton, John C Reilly, Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell, Rock Duer, Ashley Gerasimovich, Siobhan Fallon. Directed by Lynne Ramsay. MA 15+ (Infrequent strong coarse language and themes). 112 minutes.

Reviewed by Jan Epstein

CRITICISMS have been levelled that Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is perched uncomfortably between horror films (such as The Bad Seed, The Omen and Orphan), and pretentious art house cinema.

But those who enjoy films that make you think will find it a fascinating vehicle through which to explore the vexed question as to whether people are born evil, or made that way.

Based on the prize-winning novel by Lionel Shriver, Tilda Swinton plays a former travel writer, Eva, who is a pariah in a small town in the United States where she lives alone in a rundown house.

Through a series of flashbacks and fantasy sequences which become more revelatory and sequential as the story progresses, we learn that Eva was once confident and successful, and happily married to Franklin (John C Reilly).

All this changes when Kevin (Ezra Miller) is born.

Even in the womb, Eva feels disconnected from him, and when he arrives, he is hostile and a stranger.

Clever and manipulative, Kevin reserves all his antipathy for his mother.

To Franklin, he is the son he has always wanted, and as Kevin grows from toddler to adolescent, his eerie, dissociative behaviour seems singularly apparent only to his mother.

When Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich) is born, things worsen, until in mid-teenage, Kevin takes a terrible revenge on both his mother and the town.

Lynne Ramsay is an adventurous director (Morvern Callar, Ratcatcher), and her take on Shriver’s novel treads the border country between psychological speculation and horror story with great success.

Tilda Swinton (Orlando, The Deep End, I Am Love), is one of cinema’s great actors, and from the film’s opening sequence, a dream in which Eva is shown from above luxuriating in a blood red soup of writhing worms, her performance as a shamed but decent woman living a nightmare, is sobering and utterly convincing.

Eva is depicted as a mother who tries but fails to bond with her baby, and the question posed after the film’s revelatory ending is whether culpability for Kevin’s psychopathy, progressively revealed, is a result of nature or nurture.

This debate is centuries old, and within the context of beliefs about the nature of evil, ever timely.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is provocative, engrossing and splendidly acted.

As the teenage Kevin, Ezra Miller (Beware the Gonzo, Every Day) is an acting force to be watched, and his  scenes with Swinton, which require a range of emotions from malevolent calculation and chronic sense of aggrievement to momentary perplexity (as in Kevin’s last memorable scene with his mother), are mesmerising.

Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

 

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