New on DVD: We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

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Psychopathology runs rampant on our movie screens (and, if a recent study is to be believed, in the ranks of Wall Street wheelers and dealers), but usually the focus is on the psychopath, not the people he leaves behind.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a sort of Bad Seed for the era of Columbine, one that focuses not so much on a bad kid as on the mother who produced him.

When we first meet Eva (the ever excellent Tilda Swinton) she’s living in a modest house in a borderline neighborhood. She works in a travel agency. Apart from her loner tendencies, there’s nothing too unusual about her.

But clearly there’s something in her past. Why else would she emerge from her front door every morning to find vile threats spray painted on her front porch and car?

Lynne Ramsay’s film alternates between the present, in which a largely stoic (shell-shocked?) Eva tries to get on, and the past, which reveals her life as a wife and mother.

In these flashbacks Eva is married to Franklin (John C. Reilly), an oafishly amiable fellow. They have a baby they name Kevin. And while Eva desperately tries to love Kevin, the kid won’t love her back.

Kevin is played as an infant by Rock Duer, as a grade schooler by Jasper Newell, and as a teen by Ezra Miller, and on their behalf somebody ought to come up with a special Oscar for multiple actors playing the same character at different ages.

Kevin is...well, evil is an antiquated concept. So let’s just say he’s odd.

Even while still in diapers he stares with undisguised malice at his mother, who desperately tries to get him to roll a ball to her. The child is largely silent and brooding.

She doesn’t articulate her fears, but one look into her eyes confirms that Eva is anxiety riddled over what sort of demon spawn she has brought into the world.

Her second child, Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich), is an absolutely normal little girl, all bows and Barbies and puppydog tails.

Curiously, Kevin gets along great with Franklin. It’s obvious to Eva (and the viewer) that he’s cannily playing his father, forming an alliance so that whenever Eva voices a concern about Kevin’s stability, her husband will dismiss it out of hand.

The screenplay by Ramsay (Ratcatcher) and Rory Kinnear (from Lionel Shriver’s novel) drifts between Kevin’s childhood and Eva’s present, where she tries painfully to fit in with her co-workers and, occasionally, is angrily accosted by a stranger on the street.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is all about slowly peeling back the layers of Eva’s past to reveal what happened to the other members of her family. It’s pretty awful.

This is not a happy film by any stretch, but it’s weirdly compelling. And it leaves the viewer pondering an unanswerable question: Is there anything anyone could have done to prevent a monster from walking among us?

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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