Postpartum depression is a fairly common occurrence in new mothers as their body adjusts to the massive hormonal changes in addition to other factors like lack of sleep and a complete upheaval of life as they previously knew it. Often this happens within a couple of months of childbirth, but for Eva Khatchadourian (played by Tilda Swinton), it came on within minutes of delivering Kevin (played at various ages by Rock Duer, Jasper Newell, and finally Ezra Miller). That feeling of disconnectedness didn’t subside as Kevin began to grow, however, because he was far from a normal child, especially around her. Although doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with him, Kevin initially refused to speak or otherwise acknowledge Eva in any way, and he continued to wear diapers (and make use of them) far beyond the age at which he should have been able to exhibit control over his bodily functions. To add insult to injury, though, he was a real daddy’s boy, and was completely normal and even apparently happy around his father Franklin (John C. Reilly).
When we jump ahead in time to a point when Kevin is in his late teens, we can tell that something is seriously wrong, although we can only guess at what that is. The townspeople seem to genuinely hate Eva and have taken to quite bold measures to express their feelings. Her house and car are vandalized with red paint. People stare and glare in public, some avoiding her, some making their detestation known in other means. And she, clearly unhappy, takes it in stride as if it’s her lot in life and their outrage fully justified.
The story behind We Need to Talk About Kevin is revealed in a very nonlinear fashion, with parallel storylines from past and present interspersed and occasionally cut with other out-of-sequence peeks into the lives of those involved. This all helps to build tension, allowing the audience to know that the story is progressing toward something truly awful while simultaneously preventing us from knowing exactly what that is. It leads to confusion and suspense, keeping the audience on edge and prepared for just about anything, except that we’re really not quite prepared for everything.
Film history is littered with evil children, like Damien from The Omen, Christine from The Bad Seed, Michael Myers from Halloween, and all the kids from The Devil Times Five. But the really creepy ones are those who are evil for no apparent reason, and Kevin falls in extremely well there. All the actors who played Kevin were very effective, but Ezra Miller stands out in both appearance and behavior. His black hair, pale face, and bright lips really accentuate his creepy expressions that get the point across with only the slightest hint of emotion. It’s not at all hard to believe that he’s capable of anything, and it doesn’t hurt that this is also well established by what we see in younger versions portrayed by younger actors.
Tilda Swinton also gave an inspired performance, as is usually the case, and it was the perfect compliment to the creepiness exhibited by her character’s son. It’s inconceivable that neither Swinton nor Miller nor anything else in the film were nominated for Oscars, although it has its share of nominations and wins for other kinds of awards. John C. Reilly gave a good enough performance in his role, but it wasn’t a particularly significant character in the grand scheme of things, so it probably won’t be the topic of much conversation.
My primary complaint with the movie lies in its very last scene, which I feel softens the final tone and humanizes Kevin to the film’s detriment. I like the beginning of that scene, but I think that if it had been edited so that it ended a few seconds earlier, then it would have been much more powerful. This probably wouldn’t have been as much an issue if it hadn’t been the last thing in the movie, and therefore is likely to be stuck in your mind as you walk out of the theater. It’s a shame we were left with “it’s a great movie, except” instead of just “it’s a great movie”, but given everything else in the film, that’s easily forgiven.