There are times I watch my children play and wonder if they possess the most vivid imaginations in the world, or if maybe they need professional help. The Star Wars fort made of beach towels and lawn furniture that commands half my back yard gives me great pride. Looking on as my three-year-old repeatedly spins himself dizzy and crashes into the fort does not. I wonder a lot about when it's appropriate to explain to him that purposefully disorienting yourself and collapsing into a useless heap is weird and dangerousat least until he gets to college.
Anyone striving to raise normal offspring thinks about these things often, and prays they're making the best choices. It's impossible to know how you're doing because there's never some giant billboard warning, "THIS IS ONE OF THOSE IMPORTANT MOMENTS. DON'T SCREW IT UP." Parents make a million tiny decisions and hope that, at certain milestones, they come to find their kid is one of the good ones.
The boy in We Need to Talk About Kevin is not one of the good ones. Not by a long shot. The only questions are why, and what will come of his vicious behavior. Neither answer is comforting.
Lynne Ramsay has written and directed a film that will scare any parent into wearing Huggies and prompt those thinking about starting a family to use birth control. We Need to Talk About Kevin is like torture porn for grownups, a sadistic mix of Saw and Parenthood. For nearly two hours, we watch as a relatively normal couple tries to raise and nurture a troubled boy. They're not perfectbelievably far from itbut it's unclear whether that even matters. We see them make those tiny decisions that every parent makes, mostly with good intentions, and see them backfire one tantrum at a time. The fact that this pattern continues into Kevin's teenage years doesn't bode well for Mom and Dad.
I can't fathom why anyone would voluntarily sit through this sort of excruciating drama, except for the fact that the storytelling and acting are done incredibly well. Tilda Swinton (Orlando, Adaptation) plays Kevin's mother, a woman who lived wild and loose while traveling the world until she fell madly in love with a man played by John C. Reilly. Swinton displays an apprehension about being pregnant that's not at all unusual; she knows this will blunt her wanderlust and dump some serious responsibility into her previously carefree life. As she becomes the exclusive target of Kevin's torment and rage, and remains his primary caregiver (there are no babysitters or doting grandparents here), the regret and second-guessing are apparent. Swinton's steely gaze has a way of capturing such emotions.
Ramsay tells the story from opposite ends, flashing back and forth between Swinton's vibrant early years with Reilly, and a bleak present day in which she's strung-out and alone. It's a confusing way to tell the story, and requires patience during the first 30 minutes, but it also provides some powerful imagery. We see Swinton, pregnant and unsure, walking down a hallway as a swarm of ballerinas scamper past on their way to class; she hardly notices them. There's also the scene when she tries to mask the never-ending cries of her newborn by standing directly next to a jackhammer. As I said, she's not perfect.
The memories hint at some sense of blame, especially when juxtaposed with her current lot in life. Her house and car are inexplicably covered in red paint. She sleeps on a couch next to a coffee table filled with plates of old food and pill bottles. She applies for a clerical job in a dreary travel agency where everyone chews gum too loudly and looks jaundiced. Something went horribly wrong between the two ends of the story, and it's no secret that the something involves Kevin.
Family dynamics are complex, and Ramsay lets the events of the film play out in a way that's open to interpretation. Does it matter that Swinton was an awkward, reluctant mother? Would things be different if Reilly didn't pass off each episode as typical boy behavior? When exactly do potty training problems turn into giant, flickering warning signs? How could all of this been avoided? These are the questions that haunt Swinton. To Ramsay's credit, they remain unanswered. Kevin might be a nightmare, but what if ...
It's that last part that sticks with you. As a parent, you have to believe you can influence a different outcome. You have to believe you can do something better. The nagging problem, once something goes awry, is figuring out which of the million tiny decisions you got wrong.
We Need To Talk About Kevin continues at the Wilma Theatre.