** (out of four)
Just to be clear: The full title isn’t “We Need To Talk About Kevin … Because His Grades Are Wonderful!”
At all times—as a baby, an elementary schooler and a teenager—Kevin (played in his teen years by Ezra Miller) demonstrates deeply unsettling behavior, as if the kid’s decided he’s been put on earth to make his mother Eva’s (Tilda Swinton) life a waking nightmare. (His pathological coldness recalls Macaulay Culkin’s character in “The Good Son.”) Kevin’s idea of playing with his younger sister (Ursula Parker) consists of turning the vacuum cleaner on her hair. And don’t even ask what he may have done to her guinea pig.
Obviously it’s terrifying for parents (or future parents) to imagine raising a child who can’t be taught compassion and proper social behavior, despite no diagnosis of any concrete mental problems. And Swinton’s performance terrifically demonstrates how to look blank on the outside while possessing a tornado of rage and hurt and guilt inside.
Early on in the fractured chronology of “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” director/co-writer Lynne Ramsay’s first film since 2002’s “Morvern Callar,” Eva arrives at Kevin’s school to see flashing police lights and screaming kids and their parents. Clearly Kevin has perpetrated something awful. Yet the film’s presentation of people’s reactions to Eva lacks balance (“Beautiful Boy” offered more layers to the public’s confusion and sorrow), and her oblivious husband (John C. Reilly) never feels like her husband and partner at all—just a clueless dope who only notices Kevin in tiny snippets so he can tell Eva there’s nothing to worry about. Some marriages may feature that little communication, but “Kevin” fails to convince us that Eva would hold her tongue after seeing her son slowly growing into a killer.
The film wants to demonstrate the danger of parents who won't speak up about potential in-home threats, but Kevin's behavior is too extreme to think that anyone would let it go. The movie won’t make you think that moms and dads need to be more observant—really, how could anyone miss this stuff?—but it will absolutely make the concept of parenting seem terrifying. One guess as to what the least popular baby name of 2012 will be.
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