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We Need to Talk about Kevin has a very interesting mother-son relationship at its core, but its stylistic sense of humor clashes with the gravity of its subject.

The Lion and the Lamb

Lynn Ramsay directs a screenplay written by herself and Rory Kinnear. It is a story of a sociopathic son and an autistic-spectrum mother. You could sum it up in two words: “bad seed,” but the details reveal more. In scene after scene, Kevin is an angel for his father (John C. Reilly), and a devil for his mother (Tilda Swinton). As an infant, Kevin screams all day long, then calms down when daddy comes home from work. He wears diapers all the way into kindergarten, and it seems he’s doing it specifically to exert a form of control over his mother. Lord help the world when he becomes a teenager, and God forgive his parents for letting him take up archery. The Kevins of various ages are brought to menacing life by excellent performances from Jasper Newell (younger) and Ezra Miller (teenager).

Autistic spectrum mother  doesn't get along with sociopath son
Autistic spectrum mother doesn’t get along with sociopath son

For her part, Kevin’s mother Eva is ill equipped to handle a challenging child, let alone one with sociopathic tendencies. She does okay with her husband Franklin, but in general she seems to have trouble making human connections. She’s awkward with her children (Kevin has a sister) and awkward with her coworkers. She doesn’t even have a mother or a sister or a best friend to get parenting advice from. She’s entirely adrift, with no social safety net, and no natural talent for handling Kevin.

It’s a harrowing setup, and with the buzz from festivals about this We Need to Talk about Kevin, you might be forgiven for expecting an emotionally draining, gut-wrenching drama. But hold on to your handkerchief, because there is another component to We Need to Talk about Kevin.

Not Comedy Exactly

It’s not “comedy” exactly, but there is a pervasive sense of irony in the setting and cinematography that clashes with the disturbing drama.

Take the casting of John C. Reilly as Eva’s husband Franklin, for starters. Here’s an actor who plays, if not comic roles ( Walk Hard), then darkly ironic ones ( Cedar Rapids). When he picks up his screaming infant son, he makes light of the awful day Eva has had with Kevin. The scene asks you to question whether the problem is really with Kevin, or whether it’s in Eva’s head. Fair enough, except that Franklin never takes Eva’s “bad days with Kevin” seriously; he always laughs them off.

Then consider the movie’s setting. In one timeline, Eva has a job at travel agency (do they still have those?), with a staff of about 10 (what, no Internet?), including a full-time janitor (what decade is this?), in a little main-street store front (how big a town can support 10 travel agents?). The staff are a bunch of lovable losers, written and cast for their backwater quirkiness. None of this makes literal sense, and the fact that the movie sacrifices reality for style undermines the seriousness of the problem Eva has with Kevin.

Then there are the stylistic jokes that seem to come straight from Napoleon Dynamite. An awkward moment in a grocery store — Eva trying to hide from another mother — is made more awkward by the harsh fluorescent lights, the cheesy Christmas music, and Swinton peeking around end caps. The dorky office Christmas party is another scene with uncomfortable sets, cheesy music, and awkward interactions. All in good fun, and well done — just a little too callous for a deadly serious movie.

The dark ironic style is mostly confined to the latest timeline, but because it’s intercut with the earlier timeline, the movie has a weird blend of deadly seriousness with black comedy.

Deadly Serious

I don’t think Ramsay failed with We Need to Talk about Kevin.On the contrary, I wouldn’t be surprised if she got exactly what she was going for. But I disagree with the stylistic decisions evident in the movie. The idea of an Asperger mother, without a social network, in charge of a difficult child, is truly frightening and worth a really good drama. And Tilda Swinton would be an excellent choice for the lead in such a film. This drama is somewhere in We Need to Talk about Kevin.

But for me, the blending of stylistic humor and the genuinely troubling mother-son relationship doesn’t work at all and makes We Need to Talk about Kevin a very hard film to recommend.