As has previously been pointed out elsewhere, if 2010 was a year in film remembered for its words, then 2011 will be remembered for its lack of words. From The Tree of Life to Melancholia to The Artist, films this year have made their mark while being quite the opposite of verbose. The latest from last year to join the ranks of the above-mentioned is Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin, a loose adaptation of Lionel Schriver's novel of the same name. Revolving around a mother dealing with the horrific aftermath of tragedy, Ramsay's film is filled to the brim with style, from its red-flooded visuals to its sound design. Yet even though it has some effective stretches and strong acting, Ramsay's film doesn't quite measure up to its ambitions, and could, in all honesty, use a bit more talking (about Kevin).
As it charts the before and after of the tragedy at the core of the story, Ramsay's film plays fast and loose with the timeline of events. The first half hour in particular is jumpy and vague, richly captured by Seamus McGarvey's cinematography. So even though Swinton carries the look of an exhausted, drained woman with great skill, the first portions of the film don't seem to really challenge the actress. It's not simply that Swinton is making the whole affair look easy. The film simply doesn't give her much to work with other than stoic gazes. Things improve for the actress considerably as the film progresses, but because Ramsay and co-writer Rory Kinnear leave the beginning so verbally sparse, it's hard to get to know Swinton's Eva.
Which is more than a shame, because like Young Adult's Charlize Theron, Swinton is clearly giving the role everything she's got. The problem is that Ramsay and Kinnear aren't quite pulling their weight. As fascinating as Swinton is to look at, she's infinitely more compelling when given a role that allows her to do more than stare. And by jumping around so much in time so early on, Kevin feels a little too fractured for its own good. The film's central question revolves around the old nature vs. nurture debate in regards to the titular Kevin (played as a teen by Ezra Miller). And when the film settles into the more linear middle and end stretches, it actually achieves a sense of menace and tension. Ramsay's style, which emphasizes just about every possible sound in a given room, does an effective, if at times over the top job of planting us in Eva's head. The presence of red is effective as well, though it too has moments where it feels overdone. Still, these aspects, in conjunction with Swinton's committed turn, do build to an effective series of conclusions (though the absolute end feels cut short and frustratingly indecisive).
This makes Kevin a film that alternates between stretches of frustration and stretches of eerie, magnetic power. When the big moment (or rather, moments) arrive, it's hard not to be chilled to the core, even if you can guess them long before they occur (a look at the film's IMDB synopsis will tell you the film's most important event). Yet even the effective moments can prove frustrating in hindsight, because it becomes apparent that Ramsay could have made them hit harder and with greater authenticity had she simply toned down the stylistic flourishes. Some of the most interesting parts of the film come from Swinton and Miller's interactions, but they feel too brief, when they should be (of all of the "stages" of Kevin) among the most important.
And it's at this point that I, regrettably, have to draw a comparison to Swinton's last cinematic outing: Luca Guadagnino's I am Love (2010). Like Ramsay's film, Love put Swinton front and center, yet also held the puzzling desire to suffocate her work in execution that oscillated from brilliant to overwrought. Thankfully, Ramsay's style isn't nearly as overbearing, so Swinton does get more room to shine. The flip side of the coin, however, is that those moments for her to shine don't always feel as compelling. I am Love was easily the more flawed of the two films, yet its best moments afforded Swinton with better moments as well.