Based on Lionel Shriver's 2003 novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a hybrid, and not an appealing one. Lynne Ramsay's film has horror elements, but it lacks the gleeful, bloody guilelessness of that genre. At the same time, it's not the nuanced indie drama it aspires to be.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is part of a grand tradition, the rotten-kid movie. Better ones play the theme for camp (The Bad Seed) or a more unsettling mayhem (The Omen). The recent Danish film In a Better World introduces a subtle twist: Adults dislike the rotten kid, but his sad, lonely friend adores him.
There's nothing subtle about Kevin, whether he's played by Jasper Newell as a 6-year-old or Ezra Miller as a vile teenager. He's obnoxious, especially to his mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton). Only when his dad, Franklin (John C. Reilly), is around does Kevin put on a cheerful face, in an Eddie Haskell switcheroo that we're meant to believe the boy successfully sustains for years and years. I don't.
The film jumps around chronologically. In some scenes we follow Franklin and Eva as they start a family in the city, then move to a big house in the suburbs. That's where Kevin flourishes as a troublemaker. He sprays paint all over the walls and grievously injures his younger sister. In other scenes, Eva is alone. There has been some great calamity, and townspeople shun her. In still other sequences, Eva races to what is, we eventually understand, the scene of the calamity.
I dislike these teasing flashbacks, which strike me as a cheap way to build suspense. It's not suspense that builds organically, in the service of character or story. The film simply alerts us again and again: Important information will be revealed at the end. I can't properly discuss the subject of the film without disclosing the ending, so SPOILER ALERT.
In its closing moments, We Need to Talk About Kevin reveals that it is a social-issue drama about the solemn topic of school shootings. The film is beautifully photographed and superbly acted by distinguished performers, and that might make you expect it to provide some compelling insight into this very emotional subject. But it doesn't. Kevin is simply born bad, and he does many bad things, and then he does a really bad thing. Why? Dunno. He might as well be good old Freddy Krueger, slaughtering teenagers just because he likes to, but We Need to Talk About Kevin isn't that kind of movie. What it is is a drag.