Tilda Break of Dawn: We Need to Talk About Kevin

Men. Women. A man who transforms into a woman across several centuries. A bi-millennial vampire drained of inspiration. A cryogenic company CEO in the year 2151. A crime-covering mother. A conniving lawyer. The White Witch. A balleticwitch. Gabriel the Archangel. The Ancient One. Social Services. Twin sisters. Amy Schumer’s boss.

Since 1986, Tilda Swinton’s unparalleled eclecticism has enlivened stories about drinkers, sailors, soldiers, spies and so much more. This month, Midwest Film Journal staffers and contributors look back at the wild, weird and wonderful ways this Oscar-winning actress and international treasure keeps it going Tilda Break of Dawn.


Don’t worry. We don’t really need to talk about Kevin. Kevin’s an asshole — although maybe his biggest flaw is that he’s not much of a character. Yes, sadly, Kevin is mostly just a plot device, a nagging thorn in the side of his mother, Eva Khatchadourian (try saying that five times fast), as he slowly drains her of her lifeforce.

It’s clear from the early days of Kevin’s infancy that his sole purpose in life is to antagonize Eva — crying endlessly, staring with silent disdain when his mother begs and pleads with him to simply be recognized as “mama.” We spend most of the film wondering what has made Kevin the way he is. Lynne Ramsay, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay (which was adapted from the novel of the same name), wisely chooses to focus less on Kevin and what makes him tick, and more on Eva’s tortured psyche.

We Need to Talk About Kevin plays out as an updated Rosemary’s Baby for the post-Columbine generation, not necessarily intent on answering the question of what makes a murderer but what happens to those left in that murderers’ wake. We Need to Talk About Kevin plays out between the present and the past, Eva reflecting on Kevin’s upbringing while she tries to move on — both physically and emotionally — from the aftermath of the unthinkable. By the end of the film, she has no family remaining except for the one she presumably didn’t want.

Ramsay’s wisest choice came from casting Swinton, four years removed from winning her first Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in Michael Clayton. The win garnered her roles in films from acclaimed directors like David Fincher and the Coen Brothers, but Kevin was her first major post-Oscar starring role. Part of Swinton’s appeal is her ability to play characters both young and aged, characters with high status — thanks, no doubt, to her classy British accent — and characters with low status. Here, she wears both hats — as a travel writer in the past and a lifeless office drone at a travel agency in the present.

Yes, there have been too many films to name here that focus on the tenuousness of motherhood. But Kevin succeeds because it delves so deeply into the psyche of the tortured mother. Ramsay and Swinton work in tandem by painting a portrait of a woman lost at sea and desperate for any kind of a lifeline — even one as simple as a single book reading one night before bedtime. But the blissful feeling ends quickly, and before she has a chance to build on it. Ramsay has a knack for atmosphere, uniquely portraying a character’s inner turmoil with subtlety and nuance, which she similarly explores in her 2018 follow-up, You Were Never Really Here. Shots like Swinton’s eyes blankly staring into the middle distance — pushing closer and closer, in and out of focus — helps the audience to get in Eva’s headspace more efficiently than any dialogue. Swinton actually doesn’t utter a word until approximately 15 minutes into the film, but we still have a broadly drawn idea of who she is. 

The true power of the film, though, comes in its coda, when Swinton visits her son in prison on the two-year anniversary of the crime he commits. Why does she still visit him when she is, essentially, free of him? His specter still looms large over her, not to mention the townspeople whose family members her son destroyed. Why does she still love her son after all he has done to her? Or does she love him at all? Is he still redeemable, or was he ever? It’s these open-ended questions that unfortunately hold the film back, as Ramsay dedicates most of the film to other matters.

I believe there is a version of this film that emphatically succeeds, and it begins with writing Kevin as a remotely redeemable character. Ezra Miller (as the eldest version of Kevin) makes the most of what he’s given. But by the time we reach him, we already know his true nature. One interpretation is that Eva’s flashback scenes are tainted by her current situation, painting her as an unreliable narrator. But the film doesn’t give enough evidence in the present day of anything different to lend it much credence.

We Need to Talk About Kevin premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where it competed for the Palme d’Or (losing eventually to Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life). Swinton rightfully garnered glowing reviews, eventually earning nominations for Golden Globe, BAFTA and Critics’ Choice awards, among others. Although she’s been making films since 1986, Swinton’s “Known For” section on IMDb.com starts with Kevin, even above her Oscar-winning turn in Michael Clayton (especially surprising, given Kevin’s mild box office success). It’s easy to write this off as IMDb’s mysterious algorithm at work, but Swinton’s work at making Eva a fully realized character can’t be ignored. In my opinion, a great performance occurs when you can’t imagine a different actor in the same role — when the actor inhabits the essence of the character as the screenwriter intended. Swinton achieves that with little more than a blank expression, carrying with it the weight of someone who’s dreamed for years of giving in but somehow finds the strength to keep going.

Swinton is a consistent Hollywood presence because of her remarkable versatility, but We Need to Talk About Kevin showed she could carry a film — working in tandem with the right director — all on her own.


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