We Need to Talk About Kevin, talented director Lynne Ramsay's adaptation of Lionel Shriver's novel, is a hard film to pan. This is because the movie seems exceedingly complex, and objections raised against it might seem like reactions against cinema that mean to challenge. And, boy, does Ramsay want to challenge us.
But calling Kevin a disappointment doesn't adequately convey the extent to which this movie has the power to irk. Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) is a travel writer who agrees to move to a stifling suburb and become a stay-at-home mom upon the birth of her son, Kevin. Some of this is at the behest of Franklin (John C. Reilly), Eva's far more conventional husband, who is happy to settle in, get out of the city and spend weekends mowing the lawn.
Kevin has problems. First, he won't stop crying. Then he goes silent. Then, after an abnormal period of complete silence, he begins speaking — in complete sentences. Later on, violent, unexplained events just seem to happen around the boy, but only Eva seems to see them. She consults psychologists, but her son is shrewd enough to game them (and his dad). The film's final third consists of the teenage Kevin (played by Ezra Miller, from Antonio Campos' film Afterschool) proving that Eva has been right to worry.
Shriver's novel consists mostly of Eva's recollections, her processing of parental guilt, and the constant movement of her memory as she tries to figure out why Kevin "went wrong" and why she could never love him the way a mother's instinct demands. Kevin is, among other things, an examination of postpartum depression, the social pressure placed on professional women to make room in their lives for children, and the assumption (even in our post-Freudian age) that mothers are to blame when children turn out to be monsters.
But Ramsay loses control of the material early on. For one thing, Eva's guilt is made external, so that Swinton's character spends much of the movie as a town pariah-cum-punching bag, with no clear reason why. Her performance clashes with Reilly's aw-shucks demeanor and Miller's Kubrickian-to-the-hilt demon-spawn theatrics, making it unclear what Ramsay is going for — horror, tragedy or farce.
Likewise, Ramsay's scrambled chronology — theoretically justifiable as an expression of Eva's traumatized subjectivity — is leaden and overdetermined. It's like watching someone else assemble a jigsaw puzzle. The shots fall quite beautifully into place, based on rhyming color schemes (blood red is, um, a big favorite), direction of movement or some particular object or image. But the exactingly formal correlations keep the heavy hand of the artist far too visible.
By the time Kevin nears its conclusion, what we have are two leftover souls from a life that has essentially evaporated. It's Eva's story, largely because, as she comes to discover, she was always intended to be her son's ideal viewer. Every act he committed was staged for her; once there is no more performance, Eva generates something else, a kind of "performance" of the mundane. The final shot — of Eva making Kevin's bed (a rather direct visual quotation from Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman) — is the sort of simple, penetrating image that Ramsay's film should have been full of. Like Kevin, every film has an ideal viewer. It's just hard to know who the ideal viewer is for the oppressively schematic We Need to Talk About Kevin.