Director Lynne Ramsay’s gritty reboot of the PROBLEM CHILD franchise is a beautifully shot, cryptically edited suspense story about a woman (Tilda Swinton) who just can’t seem to connnect with her son (Ezra Miller). Even as a baby he’s a total asshole, almost Michael Meyersian in his silence and lack of emotion. Nobody else seems to notice – the doctor says “I wouldn’t worry about it,” the dad (John C. Reilly) seems to think she’s being paranoid.
The story is full of mysteries because it skips around in time, deliberately withholding the answers to our questions like “What is the bad thing that happened?” and “Why does everybody blame her?” and “Where is her husband now?” and “Why does the movie open with Tilda in a giant crowd of half naked people dumping Sloppy Joe on each other?” (I never figured out the answer to that last one, but the DVD extras explain that it was filmed at some kind of tomato festival.)
You know those horrible people in theaters sometimes who ask stupid questions out loud: what is he doing? Is he dead? and other questions where the answer is everybody else is wondering that too, because the movie wants you to wonder that right now and if you just shut your dumb mouth and watch the fuckin thing you’ll get your question answered when the time is appropriate you dumb asshole? This is a movie that will torture those people more thoroughly than you were fantasizing about while distracted from the movie by their talking. Their brains will be turned so much more mushy that they’ll have trouble logging in to IMDb message boards to declare it the worst movie they’ve ever seen. But they’ll do it somehow.
There are so many little details in this. Kevin’s weird OCD habits – chewing off his fingernails and then lining them up on the table, taking little bits of his bread and rolling them into balls. The Led Zeppellin t-shirt Mom wears, that at first seems to just be nostalgia for her youth, but turns out to have a deeper significance. The blood imagery that follows her everywhere: tomato pulp, red paint splattered on her house, soap mixed with paint on her skin as she tries to clean it off of her house (possible Lady Macbeth reference, motherfuckers). She seems to be marked for some horrible crime. Is she being unfairly persecuted, or deservingly reminded of something she did? She seems to think it’s deserved, so much so that she doesn’t move away, she just accepts the hate and tries to hold her head high.
Also I gotta give credit to the toddler version of Kevin. I don’t even know if he was a special effect or just an actual kid, but he is one of the only babies that you want to punch in the face. He is just a total asshole baby. I hope it’s not too late to have him play the comic strip character Marvin .
To me the movie feels very naturalistic, but my buddy who I sometimes code-name Mr. Armageddon told me he thought she was an unreliable narrator, that everyone and everything seems set against her because that’s how she sees the world, not necessarily because it’s true. And he said that she doesn’t realize that the reason the kid hates her is because she’s hated him her whole life, resented having to have a child because it ruined the great life she used to have traveling around the world getting covered in tomato sauce.
If that was intended I didn’t pick up on any of it. But it’s a much better interpretation than mine because the way I watched it it was a pretty one-dimensional horror concept, kind of hollow beneath all the artful execution, effective creepiness and careful lack of specificity. The entire movie seems based on a primal fear of the young people who won’t get off your lawn, and especially your own children. Kevin is not an anti-christ or a demon, but he’s still an implausible worst-case scenario, a boogeyman. (Well, I guess a boogeyteen, grown from a boogeybaby). It’s still a superstitious idea that this kid could just live to hate people and torment his mom and then… what he does later. Even Rob Zombie’s HALLOWEEN understood that in real life there are circumstances that lead to these things. Bullying, KISS t-shirts, etc.
That doesn’t seem to be the case with Kevin, so that takes him out of the category of real life menaces to society and puts him in the one with Michael Meyers and Chucky. He doesn’t seem to have any humanity in him at all. Mom tries to reach him, go out to dinner with him and stuff, but any time he’s nice or normal it just seems to be to set her up, or to convince dad and sis that he’s normal, all the more to fuck with mom’s head.
But she still hugs him at the end. I did like that.
I think incomprehensible evil is a good move in a horror movie. It works great in the original TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE. It works great in the original HALLOWEEN. We look at these human monsters and cannot comprehend what the fuck is going on in their heads and that is why they’re scary. And it works here, as a scary movie. But I get the feeling this is supposed to be something more than just scary. It’s all leading up to (HERE IS THE ONE SPOILER FOR THIS MOVIE – ALSO THE ONE THING I KNEW ABOUT IT BECAUSE IT’S IN ALL THE PLOT SUMMARIES BUT LUCKILY I COMPLETELY FORGOT THAT UNTIL I GOT TO THE END OF THE MOVIE) a terrible event inspired by Columbine and similar tragedies. (It’s off screen, not so much out of subtlety as out of what he does not really making any sense, I don’t see how the fuck they would make it believable if they had to actually show it). In real life these things are hard to comprehend but they are done by deranged human beings and not one-dimensional evil entities who live only to terrorize Tilda Swinton.
So as much as I enjoyed it as an artsy-fartsy version of a suspense thriller it kinda left a bad taste in my mouth. I felt like it was pretending to be some sort of reflection of the real world but really just exploits our simple-minded paranoia. I guess it didn’t help that between starting this review and finishing it a real life massacre happened in a neighborhood I know real well, in a place I’ve walked past many times, where friends of mine very easily could’ve been. I feel like there are a million factors that lead to these tragedies and we can’t really understand them, but we at least know it’s not just a person who was born evil and nobody believe mom and told her it would be okay and he gave her an evil smile before he did it.
I give this movie credit, but personally I prefer ORPHAN. It’s actually kinda the opposite of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, not just because the tone is deliberately pulpy and outlandish, but because it’s about people who desperately want to be parents and can’t so they adopt, instead of ones that are real bummed that they have to have children instead of enjoying the outdoor spaghetti sauce wrestling parties that they would be able to have if they weren’t tied down. But it plays off of similar parenting fears and nobody-believes-me paranoia in a way that’s equally creepy but way more crazy and fun. It also has its adult heroine punching a little girl in public and her kids using a gun.
By the way, they never do talk about Kevin. That’s gonna disappoint alot of people I think.
But it’s a well made movie, definitely not run-of-the-mill, I would recommend it for people who enjoy a less straight forward, not spoon fed approach to what could be a standard thriller.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.