You've heard the old chestnut about using one's powers for good and not for evil. It's a line that comes to mind about the return of director Lynne Ramsay, who has largely wasted her creative energy on "bad seed" cliches in We Need to Talk About Kevin.
"Evil" may be the natural state of the film's titular character, the child of Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) and her cluelessly upbeat husband Franklin (John C. Reilly). Played at three ages by Rock Duer, Jasper Newell, and rising star Ezra Miller, Kevin is three times a crazy, crafty beyond his years as he makes his mother's life miserable and manipulates Dad into thinking Mom is the problem.
Kevin throws tantrums, spits bile, and generally acts out in escalating aggression, all of it seemingly intended to break his mother's spirit. It's possible to interpret Eva's bad handling of one situation as the tragic error that takes the mother-son relationship beyond a point of no return, but the story--adapted by Ramsay and Rory Kinnear from Lionel Shriver's novel--more clearly resembles Coleridge's famous appraisal of Othello's Iago as a villain with "motiveless malignity."
It's nature baubled by nurture, and the hapless Eva's efforts eventually recede into self-defensive management rather than active parenting. Kevin rides the edge of drama so extreme as to be comic, which Ramsay happily allows. From the first shot to the last, the film subjects Eva to near-unrelenting emotional punishment, broken only by glimmers of hope that lead to even more painful smackdowns of despair.
As a drama, Kevin is thematically anemic: Kevin is a force to be dealt with, and the parents don't have the tools to do so. Their ultimate failure is not to utter the film's title and insist upon clinical help, but padding that simple message out to a 112-minute PSA winds up making Ramsay seem more sadistic than empathetic. As an evil-kid horror movie, which Kevin consciously resembles in plot and lacerating tone, Kevin is been there, done that, film-school style.
The director of art-house classics Morvern Callar and Ratcatcher remains potent to be sure, and as fearlessly off-putting as she wants to be. After a nine-year absence and applied injudiciously here, her style has come to look a bit like shtick, but there's a dark beauty to the way she extreme-zooms the mundane to become sinister (evoking the color and texture of blood in paint or tomatoes or other suburban residue). And the actors are faultless in doing Ramsay's bidding: Miller perfects his dead-eyed stare as a Columbine killer in the making, and an even more riveting Swinton proves entirely clear and resonant in her confusion, fear, anger, and guilt.
Still, put all this together in one package, and you get a mess of a film, an annoying provocation with too little to say, a serious credibility deficit, a whiff of misandry, and a miscalculated, unseemly gusto for abusing its hero. Instead of having catharsis, the audience just gets had.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]