By Eleanor Ringel Cater
We need to talk about “We Need to Talk about Kevin.”
Because, having lost its best shot at an Oscar when its star, Tilda Swinton, wasn’t nominated in the best actress category, it’s likely the film will slip in and out of town without much notice. And that’s too bad because it’s quite a good movie, with a daring performance by Swinton that’s scads better than some of the other recent nominees.
I mean, did anyone actually see Glenn Close in “Albert Nobbes?” Not her best work.
Despite the clumsy, what-the-? title (which becomes clearer after you see the picture), this is a first-rate psychological study. Instead of the usual Hollywood pabulum — where a Bad Mom is someone who buys cookies for the bake sale instead of making them herself —”Kevin” is a chilling exploration of motherhood in extremis.
The director is a Scot: Lynne Ramsay, whose earlier movies “Ratcatcher” and “Morvern Callar,” have already shown us a filmmaker as transgressive in her way as either of the Davids (Lynch and Cronenburg) back in their earlier creepier days.
Most directors would make this the story of a bad seed. Or couch it in fire-and-brimstone demon-raising. But Ramsay is more insidious, as well as more creative. She knows we know this child is going to do bad things. However, it’s not the climactic horrifying event that fascinates Ramsay. She’s interested in how one gets from a colicky baby to an evil-eyed child to a malevolent teen with murder in mind.
With her androgynous looks and skittish aura, the mere idea of a pregnant Tilda Swinton is somehow unsettling. Think of the emaciated Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby.”
Though it’s quickly clear little Kevin is no bouncing bundle of joy, even more disturbing is Swinton’s reaction. She’s aghast at this mewling, yowling creature in her arms. This…thing that needs to be fed and changed and…Omigod…cuddled. Bending over to change his diaper, she coos, ‘Mummy was happy before little Kevin came along. Now Mummy wakes up every morning and wishes she was in France.”
As Swinton’s amiably clueless husband, John C. Reilly is almost an after-thought. His presence underscores the specificity of Kevin’s malevolence.
Complex, disturbing, even frightening, “We Need to Talk about Kevin” says there’s more to being a mother than giving birth (duh…).
The film asks us to think about the consequences of parenting beyond the baby showers and the Pampers and the Little League and the SAT’s. And now vaginal probes? Is that really the best way to go?