Tilda Swinton’s brilliance makes ‘Kevin’ worth seeing

  • Thu Mar 1st, 2012 8:30am
  • Life

By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic

Straddling a curious and not always successful line between horror movie and social-issue film, “We Need to Talk About Kevin” doesn’t completely work as either. But when it’s good it’s troubling, and it’s frequently good.

It also benefits from the towering presence of Tilda Swinton, the Oscar-winning actress from “Michael Clayton” and “I Am Love,” who is onscreen for virtually the entire movie.

Here Swinton plays a character faced with a sickening situation: What happens when the maternal instinct is challenged by a child who might be a bad seed?

She plays Eva, a mother in an American suburb who, as we grasp early on, is remembering something very awful that happened in the recent past. These jagged flashbacks form a pattern around her son Kevin, who is not quite right from a very early age.

Her husband (John C. Reilly, playing it straight) is a go-along, get-along guy who just wants to pal around with everybody. He can’t understand how Eva is failing to bond with her son.

Later (when Kevin is played by Ezra Miller), the boy becomes two-faced to such a degree that he’s openly contemptuous of his mother, even if he smiles at dad and pretends to be putting in the effort.

The movie’s based on a novel by Lionel Shriver, and is directed by Lynne Ramsay, the Scots filmmaker who doesn’t work often enough. Her first two features, “Ratcatcher” and “Morvern Caller,” were striking exercises in disorienting design, intensely told from an unusual perspective.

That’s true of this one, too; Eva’s world is rooted in recognizable human behavior but also has something dreamy and out-of-balance about it. The music by Radiohead member Jonny Greenwood is part of this effect, too. In this swirl of images and sounds, we have to wonder whether Kevin is completely the problem or whether Eva was always just a little strange herself.

As talented as Ramsay and Swinton are — and the movie is interesting to watch, even devastating at times, because of their efforts — I had the nagging feeling it wasn’t all coming together. Maybe the source material tries too hard to “explain” a certain kind of public tragedy that’s become all too common in recent years.

Or maybe previous evil-kid movies have made it difficult to mount a serious look at how a child might be “off” in some inexplicable way.

It’s hard to see Kevin and not automatically wonder whether he’s wandered out of an “Omen” sequel, where the horrors tend to be broader and less psychologically founded. Once we’ve laid eyes on Kevin, nothing the little devil does comes as a surprise.

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” (3 stars)

A suburban mother (the towering Tilda Swinton) pieces together the aftermath of a tragedy involving her son, a boy who isn’t quite right from a very young age. The movie’s evocatively directed by Lynne Ramsay, although it doesn’t entirely balance its psychological study with the horror-movie aspects.

Rated: R for violence, language, nudity.

Showing: Alderwood Mall, Meridian.