The basic synopsis of the fantastic indie thriller We Need to Talk About Kevin may sound like just another "dangerous kid" flick, perhaps one that is similar to more disposable titles like Orphan or The Good Son. That's where I come in: trust me on this one, horror fans: We Need to Talk About Kevin is nothing like a conventional killer kid horror flick, and while it does sometimes remind the viewer of the best components of the classic horror film The Bad Seed, the simple truth is that writer/director Lynne Ramsay has cooked up a powerfully unique and consistently fascinating way to tell a potentially tiresome tale.
In other words, this is one of the best horror films of the year. By far.
New mother Eva (Tilda Swinton) is at the end of her rope: her infant son is a truly miserable baby, and things only manage to get worse as little Kevin progresses through his toddler years, his "normal" childhood, and of course his unhappy teenage phase. For her part, Eva seems well aware that Kevin is, well, dark, strange and patently unlovable -- but she says virtually nothing about it. What would a neighborhood think of a mother who accuses her own son of flat, basic malevolence? As the years progress, Eva and Kevin are constantly at odds, she a well-meaning but clueless blank slate of a mother, and he a quietly insidious little bastard. Kevin's dad (John C. Reilly) is kind-hearted but oblivious to Kevin's darker tendencies, which leaves Eva to her own inadequate devices. And then things get ugly.
To say much more would rob the viewer of some fascinating surprises, unexpected divergences, and a brilliant screenplay that offers more subtle food-for-thought than it does basic thriller flick conventions. As in the original version of The Bad Seed, Kevin is simply fascinated by the idea of what an "evil kid in a normal house" could accomplish. The performances by Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller (as the teenaged Kevin) are so powerfully good they could probably salvage a limp script, but fortunately Kevin offers stories, themes, and ideas that are more or less fascinating. Is a "bad kid" the parents' fault in all cases? What happens when a parent feels little to no love for their son? Could something like that be justified?
And then there's the issue of the wonderfully "unreliable" narrator. Based on a well-regarded book by Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin feels like a 16-year nightmare as filtered through the mind of a desperately frustrated mother. In some scenes, Eva is most assuredly the victim, and Swinton does a stunning job of keeping the audience on her "side," but then we hit another moment of familial strife, and we're left wondering if maybe this isn't all (or mostly) Eva's fault to begin with. Writer/director Ramsay (Morvern Callar), to her inestimable credit, keeps things deliciously ambiguous. One suspects that a woman could watch this dark and challenging movie with her 16-year-old son, and they'd both see completely different films.
As a horror/thriller, We Need to Talk About Kevin could be described as a "slow burn," but given the caliber of the performances, the odd but captivating visual presentation, and the consistently challenging screenplay, I mean "slow burn" as a huge compliment. By the time we arrive at the moments of true horror and misery, We Need to Talk About Kevin has transcended basic genre labels and become one of the most insightful, daring, and ballsy thrillers I've seen in years. Take it as a very loose remake of The Bad Seed / unofficial sequel to Rosemary's Baby, or take it as a powerful rumination on the genesis of evil, but make no mistake: this is easily one of the year's best movies.