Swinton shines as detached mother in parental nightmare film 'Kevin'
Tilda Swinton has taken brave risks in her movie career, from full-frontal nudity in "Young Adam" to a sex change in "Orlando" to villain in "Michael Clayton" to adulteress in "I Am Love."
But "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is probably her bravest role yet. She plays Eva, a mother who never bonds with her son and wonders whether he's sadistic. Then the son goes on to commit a horrible crime.
As a mother of twins, Swinton said playing the role of Eva was like being in a maternal nightmare. Although she says she has a good relationship with her teen twins, she had fears while pregnant about whether she would emotionally connect with them.
"I'm aware that I was lucky. Wow, I really love them," she said. "But there was something in me, and I knew it couldn't have been that way.
"It's a murderous thing, giving birth. It's violent. … You feel like you're cutting off a part of yourself. ... Even more frightening than giving birth is the idea of giving birth to an alien violence, because it might be giving birth to your own violence."
Because of that, Swinton said, she thinks "Kevin" plays out as a horror story, albeit an unconventional one. "It's a nightmare scenario, but it's not that far from everyday parental feelings. … It's a bloody business, being a parent, being a child."
The horror of "Kevin" leaves the families of his victims devastated. But the crime also devastates Eva, from whose perspective the movie is told. She retreats into isolation, with no one to share her feelings. And she's the subject of community-wide repulsion.
"One of the first things we see is Eva being smacked, being punched in the face by a complete stranger," Swinton said.
"Generally speaking, in situations where a son is violent, society considers it to be the mom's fault."
"We Need to Talk About Kevin" is based on the novel by Lionel Shriver, but the movie deviates from the structure of the book, which is told in the first person as a series of letters from Eva to her husband.
Director Lynne Ramsay and screenwriter Rory Stewart Kinnear decided that following the narrative arc of the book would require voice-overs, which they wanted to avoid. So they changed the screenplay to go back and forth in time, with much of the film taking place in eerie silence.
"Words in many ways make looking at life really complicated," Swinton said of the changes in May, during a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival, where the movie premiered. "I think cinema went downhill when words came in."
Although told in a nonlinear manner, the movie has three basic sets of scenes: those from Eva's early, happy days with her husband, when she was a successful travel writer; those from her troubling days of bringing up Kevin and another, younger child; and those from the aftermath of Kevin's rampage.
Ramsay and her filmmaking team link all three periods through the use of one color: red.
In the early days, Eva is seen at a harvesting festival in Spain, where she is lifted by a huge crowd in a square as she is pummeled with crushed tomatoes. It's a joyful scene, but also oddly ominous.
During the home-based scenes with Kevin, the youngster goes into her private office, which is covered with maps, and spreads red paint over all the walls.
And in the third set of scenes - after Kevin has committed his crime - the community pours red paint over the exterior of Eva's modest home and her car, as if marking her as a pariah.
Throughout all the scenes, visuals and colors tell more about Eva's state of mind than any dialogue could.
Swinton said she sees the film's narrative approach as an opportunity "to be lonely and interior," to make a movie that's "not about facts."
"It's about feelings," she said. "Being a parent is like writing one long letter you never send. At the end of the day, the only thing you can hear is your heartbeat."
Part of the problem in the relationship between Eva and Kevin (Ezra Miller) deals with the notion of artificiality.
In one of the early scenes, shortly after Kevin's birth, Eva is pushing him in a stroller as the baby screams incessantly. Eva spots a road worker with a deafening jackhammer, and she rolls the stroller up next to the worker, drowning out the sounds of the baby. She just stands there, as if the jackhammer were music to her ears.
And for the rest of the film, it seems that Kevin somehow senses his mother's resentment.
As Kevin gets older, he starts acting out in horrible ways, as if trying to get his mother's attention. At the same time, he acts like an angel when his genial dad (John C. Reilly) is present. And this infuriates Eva more.
"The film really does deal with the concept of artifice, of the disconnect between roles in the family," Swinton said. "Kevin feels like his parents are reading from cue cards, that they're all faking it."
Such emotionally complicated subject matter was difficult to bring to the screen in an artful way, Ramsay said.
"I spent four years making this film," Ramsay said at the Cannes Film Festival. "Every film is like pulling a ball over a mountain, but this one was especially difficult."
Neither Ramsay nor Swinton think the movie definitively answers what's wrong with Kevin. "We really need not to know," Swinton said. "He is the mystery for the mother, for whom we are attempting to have sympathy with."
Nor does the movie make a final judgment about Eva.
"Was she a good mother?" Ramsay said. "It's not black and white."