Tilda Swinton wears red only once in We Need to Talk About Kevin. At an office holiday party, Swinton as Eva, in a red dress, haltingly allows herself to smile as she watches the coworkers who normally ignore her drunkenly mashing each other in embraces they’ll have allowed each other to forget by Monday. One male coworker, donning a pair of Rudolph ears, saunters to her and offers her a dance. The still smiling Swinton demurs, then flinches when the man calls her a “stuck up bitch” who should take his offer because no one else will have her.
It’s a vicious take-down, quietly played as is every scene in this film, which opens with nothing but red. Tomato red. And a stew of people in a country’s celebration where the tomato is given its own pagan ritual. The event might not exist in real life, but the rapture on Swinton’s face in context with the reality to which she awakens makes a compelling and strangely comforting visual contrast for the washed-out environment in which we follow her character.
“I don’t care what you did,” says the crass woman who hires her to work in a small travel agency, “as long as you can type and file. The relief on Swinton’s face is heartbreaking, especially when we learn she once owned her own travel agency.
She also had a husband and family and lived in a McMansion. All she seems to have left, as the nonlinear script pieces together her life, are her memories and the clothes for a career that was important to her.
It’s arguable if the career was more important than her first-born, the Kevin of the title.
We Need to Talk About Kevin, cowritten by Lynn Ramsay and Rory Kinnear and directed by Lynn Ramsay, doesn’t solve a mystery, like why Swinton remains in a town where the people hate her and, on occasion, slap her; it does prove Swinton to be an actor of toughness whose facial expressions accomplish what dialogue can’t. Such as when she wordlessly takes in the sight of her house and car vandalized with red paint. Or, walks in on her teenage son masturbating and watching her watch him masturbating.
Eva is never brought to the level of the cruelty, much of it incomprehensible, of those around her. The film consciously refuses to justify or to explain and doesn’t allow its characters to do so, either. Even when Swinton asks her son, “why” he admits he doesn’t know. Instead, we get one woman’s attempts to find stability even when she’s coping with loss so great it’s easy to believe she’s in a PTSD fugue. We’re almost grateful for her having windshield washer fluid to wash off all that red paint.
Hovering in the vacant expression of the actors who play Kevin at various ages is the suggestion some people are born evil. It’s not, though, a conversation one has with one’s husband – the stalwart John C. Reilly as Franklin – about one’s son. The signs are there as we watch young Kevin turn on a sunny disposition at his father’s key in the door after having treated Swinton to antisocial behaviors that progress frighteningly as he reaches his teens.
For every transgression Kevin commits, it’s Franklin who defends Kevin. The script allows his ongoing – and tragic – ignorance of what Kevin really is. There’s no scene between Franklin and Kevin; I suspect the filmmakers realized the impossibility of Franklin not recognizing a glint that might prove his wife’s gnawing and quiet insistence that something is wrong with their son.
Stylistically, too, the film makes precise choices, particularly in the songs that contradict the emotions of a scene. The aforementioned script flaw aside, the dialogue between mother and son and the acceleration toward the terrible acts Kevin commits is articulate, almost theatrical. It’s the dialogue of two intelligent people at war with each other. Albeit, a war that no one else ever sees.
Not a mother, I admit I found myself giving a guarded recommendation to a woman who was. That was, I believe, wrong. In a scene in which a young Kevin, sick, clings to his mother and excludes his father, the two parents exchange a look as though a long-awaited denouement has finally taken place. The film’s final hug between mother and son indicate that, whatever faults she had as a mother, Eva deserves that denouement.