Scottish filmmaker Ramsay has become something of a darling with cineastes because of her first two features, Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar. I've seen both films and found them intriguing in sort of a hazy way, though I did not share fans' enthusiasm. Ramsay's long-awaited third feature, We Need to Talk About Kevin, set in the US and starring a mostly American cast (save British star Tilda Swinton, copping the same monotoned, slightly spotty Yank accent that won her an Oscar in Michael Clayton), is a non-chronological account of Eva (Swinton), an emotionally distant New York travel writer, and her son Kevin, who seems to have been literally born bad.
From the very first scene, We Need to Talk relies rather too heavily on symbolism - there is a self-conscious use of the color red which is meant to remind Eva of a Kevin's horrific decision, just days before his sixteenth birthday, to stage a massacre at his high school. (I'm not giving much away here.) The film jumps between scenes of Eva's life after the massacre and scenes of Kevin's upbringing, which broadly announce to the audience (yet not to fellow characters) that this is an evil, evil child. But nothing rings psychologically true. The townspeople actively loathe Eva, blaming her for her son's actions. Yet in the various stories of school massacres we have all read about over the last two decades, not once have we ever heard about the parents being held responsible. So these scenes where random strangers splash red paint on Eva's house, or slap her in a parking lot, come across as mere melodrama.
Maybe Ramsay (who, with Roy Kinnear, adapted female American author Lionel Shriver's novel of the same title) could argue that the angry community reaction only comes from Eva's icily guilty point of view, but these scenes are clearly depicted as reality, so I don't buy it. I suspect more that Ramsay is taking a snobby, cynical stance - as if to say that, since this is an American story, there's no room for subtlety here. The film acts as though we thick-headed Yanks can only respond to the blatantly obvious, whether it's the casting of extremely wicked-looking children as Kevin at various ages, or the countless shots of red things to remind us of Kevin's bloodbath. Even Kevin's weapon of choice is laughably unlikely.
There is a story worth telling about the parents of kids who kill, and how they respond to their children's horrible actions, but this isn't it. The film does examine the dark side of today's yuppie parents and their shocking lack of authority over their out-of-control spawn, but it's so over the top about Kevin's psychopathic behavior that I completely doubted the inability of his dumbbell father (John C. Reilly) to see his son for who he is, as well as Eva's unwillingness to do anything about it. It would have been much more effective if we could find ourselves believing how a character like Kevin could come to exist, but Ramsay's aloof directorial style does not serve the story well. In the end, We Need to Talk About Kevin is little more than an art house version of The Bad Seed, and in its own way it's just as campy.