To say that this is not an easy film to watch is putting it mildly. No one would deny Tilda Swinton’s superior performance, but people were sharply divided when We Need to Talk About Kevin screened at the Telluride Film Festival last fall. Some folks I spoke to were downright angry. When I finally caught up with the film, I could barely stand to sit through it.
Why? This is the story of a “bad seed,” a demon child who torments his poor mother from infancy through adolescence, while the father (played by John C. Reilly) remains blissfully unaware of his son’s malevolent nature. As a parent, I found the child’s hostile treatment of his good-hearted mother almost unbearably upsetting. And it never lets up.
It didn’t help that I had read a one-line synopsis that told me the outcome of the story. If you don’t know where it’s leading, you might derive some suspense from the narrative, adapted by Rory Kinnear and director Lynne Ramsay from Lionel Shriver’s novel, even though it is told through fragmented flashbacks. For me, knowing the ending—which I won’t give away, just in case—made me all the more impatient to get there and get it over with.
Trying to remove my personal feelings from the equation is difficult. I’m able to appreciate the quality of Swinton’s deeply-felt performance as a woman who feels suffocated by circumstance. Director Ramsay certainly wrings every drop of unease she can from the material. (Why would someone be drawn to this kind of story in the first place? I can’t imagine, though I wasn’t crazy about Ratcatcher, Ramsay’s highly-vaunted debut film, either.)
Others have heaped praise on We Need to Talk About Kevin, and they’re entitled to their opinions. I can only be honest in describing my reaction: watching this movie was sheer torture.