In And I Don't Want to Live This Life — an autobiography by Deborah Spungen named after a line of poetry by Sid Vicious — the author recounts her conflicted bond with her infamous daughter, Nancy Spungen, the ill-fated girlfriend of the Sex Pistols bassist. Her memories of Nancy's infancy immerse the reader in the agonizing realization that her daughter was disturbed from the time of her birth.
In the unsettling 2011 film We Need to Talk About Kevin, Eva (played convincingly by Tilda Swinton) stares achingly and questioningly at infant son Kevin (played as a teen by Ezra Miller) while he vacantly regards her from his crib. Like baby Nancy, he's a joyless infant who summons in his mother shame-filled contempt.
Later we see Kevin as a child, needy and seeking comfort in the arms of his mother when he's ill; and again, years after, just before he turns 18, facing the doom of an adult prison term. Like Deborah Spungen, Eva has her moments of tender motherly devotion, but they are few and far between.
Kevin jumps the shark and strays from the heart-rending sympathy evoked in Spungen's story when the Omen-meets-Columbine drama lapses into heavy-handed symbolism (the color red, broken eggs, etc.). What was once intimate and evocative becomes a Film 101 joke laden with indie irony. The movie based on a bestseller by Lionel Shriver comes across as an ultra-stylized music video — not that there's anything wrong with that. It's the sort of eye candy and cinematic lyricism that Terrence Malick does so well, right? Unfortunately writer/director Lynne Ramsay doles out sourballs and open-mic-night poetry.
Thankfully, we get some redemption from Swinton's emotionally charged performance as a domesticated bohemian/Satan Madonna. Flawed, self-absorbed and wistful for the hedonism of her youth, Swinton's Eva goes from carefree abandon to confusion to rage and gut-punching despair. Though charmless, she's so dern watchable. In one scene, she completely loses it and bellows in a guttural, id-driven eruption: "Before you were born, Mommy used to be happy! Now Mommy wakes up every day and wishes she were in France!"
No doubt her outburst was intended as a "Here's Johnny!" or Mommie Dearest nod, when the height of insanity meets absurdity. But does it work? Well, let's just say Swinton sells it.
Through dreamy nostalgic sequences we're brought up to speed on Eva's youthful, happier days and whirlwind courtship with daddy-in-denial Franklin (a woefully underutilized John C. Reilly). They run down cobblestone streets and hump in the moonlight.
Eva pines for her salad days (shown through flashbacks) while awaiting an interview for a clerical position in a bleak travel agency. She awaits, miserable and dejected. You can sense her wishing she could be at the airport and not booking reservations. It's a quiet scene brilliantly captured in a wide-angle shot. Ramsay humorously lightens up the morose tableau with kitschy, outdated posters. One even says, "Tampa awaits." There are other swatches of black comedy, amusing visuals (a generic tomato-can grocery store shot that could be seen as an homage to Repo Man) and a silly house-cleaner gag, but there really could stand to be more laughs to balance the mood.
The wistful forays into Eva's past, her impending tragedy and godawful present are stunningly shot by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (The Avengers, The Soloist and High Fidelity). With an ingeniously fractured timeline, Kevin gets bonus points for its memory-like narration, almost making up for the gaping holes in storytelling and sparse character development, which are more intricately drawn in Shriver's novel. Ramsay (Ratcatcher, The Lovely Bones) and newbie co-screenwriter Rory Stewart Kinnear drag us through the dysfunctional life of Eva and Franklin Katchadourian, their completely loathsome son and poor, poor younger sister, Celia. We won't even get into the horror that befalls that little creature. (Note for later reference the Kevin-sucking-lichee post-babysitting incident — self-indulgent filmmaking at its baddest best.)
One star and highlight of the film not to overlook is the soundtrack. Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood — who's earned acclaim as a composer in his own right and supplied music for There Will Be Blood — mixes folksy, bluesy ditties with sugary pop classics by Buddy Holley, the Beach Boys and George Michael, adding a dynamic sonic backdrop to Ramsay's minor-key direction.
Ramsay made an ill-informed choice by not faithfully interpreting the novel. Her ambition goes over the top and feels desperate, falling short of the engrossing realism of Iranian Oscar-winner A Separation or the psychological prisms of Martha Marcy May Marlene. Those films offer the uniquely rendered but sincere emotion that should be on display in Kevin —, not Jekyll and Hyde bouts of moviemaking mania.
Opinions have been polarized on Kevin. Some say it's utterly compelling; others say it's completely pretentious. The truth lies a little west of center. The film stays with you after, but not always for the right reasons.