Cannes Film Festival shocked by 'We Need to Talk About Kevin,' horror tale of parental nightmare


Image Credit: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

We Need To Talk About Kevin has delivered a gut-punch to the Cannes Film Festival.

The movie, about a mother (Tilda Swinton) grappling with the aftershocks of a school massacre perpetrated by her sociopathic son, played like an early-morning waking nightmare at the start of the movie gathering’s second day. It earned raves, deeply affecting critics, and stirring predictions that it would claim the festival’s Palme d’Or grand prize before most of the rest of the screenings had a chance to play.

It’s hard to describe We Need To Talk About Kevin simply as a drama – director Lynne Ramsay’s film gets under the skin like a horror story …

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But it’s the realism that makes it chilling. Imagine The Omen, The Bad Seed, or anything from the killer-kid genre of thrillers, but stripped of supernatural hokum and starting at the place those tales usually end, with focus on a lonely, guilt-addled survivor instead of the victims.

“These are not just people her son has killed. She’s killed them, by proxy,” said Ramsay (Ratcatcher) after Thursday’s debut screening. At least, that’s how the mother, Eva, sees it – as well as most everyone else around her in the roiling aftermath of the slayings.

“One of the first things we see in the movie is her being smacked in the face, punched in the face, by a complete stranger, and her first reaction is, ‘It’s my fault,’” says Swinton, who won a supporting Oscar for Michael Clayton and could well become a contender for best lead actress with Kevin.


John C. Reilly co-stars as Swington’s affable but oblivious husband, and 18-year-old Ezra Miller (Californication) plays the icy, disturbing son, who devotes every moment to manipulating the father and unsettling his mother, who more clearly sees what he is. The movie, based on the novel Lionel Shriver, flashes back to their early family life while Eva tries to get by post-massacre.

Her character is not only living any parent’s nightmare, but has chosen to damn herself , stay in the same town, enduring daily hatred and vandalism, and making regularly visits to her imprisoned, monstrous son, said co-screenwriter Rory Kinnear. His take: she feels she deserves punishment.

No one can know what it’s like to be the mothers and fathers of the Columbine killers, or the recent Tucson shooter – but any parent can imagine that hellish prospect.  So while the horror story comparison might seem trite … “Oh no, it doesn’t,” Ramsay said. “I wanted to make a psychological horror film.”

True horror – separate from cheap thrills — helps not only purge, but examine our worst fears, said Ramsay, who was motivated to make the movie because she was thinking of having children of her own.

“I’m at the age where I’m thinking about having children myself, and went to some of these questions about responsibility, and whether sometimes a child is born, and you just don’t know who he is,” Ramsay says.

Though the film doesn’t supply easy answers, she said she came to a couple conclusions. “Don’t buy your son a crossbow,” she joked, and more seriously, a very simple lesson: “spend a lot of time with your kids.”

For more movie news and updates from the Cannes Film Festival, follow Anthony Breznican on Twitter: @Breznican.

Comments (46 total) Add your comment
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  • Elizabeth

    This movie sounds like a must-see for all parents.

    • Bluto

      Isn’t this coming out already as a movie called “Beautiful Boy?”

      • oliviersansau

        i knwo right?!?! thats exactly as I thought. I had already read and seen the trailer of Beautiful Boy. This continues the trend of Hollywood always releasing TWO similar movies at the same time

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        —-Isn’t there another movie coming up with Michael Sheen and Maria Bello that has almost the exact same plot? Eerie coincidence.

  • tipsy

    I read the book. It was very slow moving but effective nonetheless. Also, this movie is getting raves which just proves that the director should have been kept as the helmer of The Lovely Bones instead of Peter Jackson. He was ttolaly wrong for the material while Kevin rave proves Ramsey would have been the right one all along (she was developing TLB for years before Jackson bought rights).

  • Kristina

    I read the book a few years ago. It was chilling to say the least. Lionel Shriver is an excellent author; I had no idea her book was becoming a movie. If it’s anything like the book then it’s going to be brutal and I’m not just talking about the school massacre or how Kevin goes about it.

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  • JLC

    Isn’t there another movie coming up with Michael Sheen and Maria Bello that has almost the exact same plot? Eerie coincidence.

    • Yanni

      I guess “murderous children on a rampage” is this year’s theme—since murderous-ghoulish-reflected-children has been done to death. Pardon the pun.

  • Jackie

    It sounds a lot like the book ‘Nineteen Minutes’ by Jodi Picoult.

    • MomC

      Jackie – This book is infintely superior to anything Jodi Piccoult has written. With all do respect to Ms. Piccoult, whose stories are really well planned and whose ideas are brilliant but whose writing always holds her books back from greatness. Lionel Shriver (who is a woman, BTW)is a much more talented writer.

      • Jackie

        Thanks for the recommendation, MomC! I’ll check it out. ‘Nineteen Minutes’ was the third book of Piccoult’s that I read, and it will be the last. I just have so much trouble finding anything redeeming about any of her characters, and I always finish her books feeling hopelessly depressed.

      • anne

        Jackie–If you have a hard time finding redeeming qualities in Piccoult’s characters and that is a dealbreaker for you, I don’t know if you should read or see We Have to Talk about Kevin. It’s not so much depressing as disturbing.

      • jmc

        I just finished reading WHtTaK and I have to say that I didn’t find the end of it depressing.

        I’d say more, but I might inadvertently give things away. Not a feel good movie, but a thought provoking one that leaves open the possibility of redemption and hope.

    • Kristina

      I just looked up the summary of Nineteen Minutes and, trust me, they are completely different. That one seems to focus on the students, this one is mostly about the mother. It is an intense read.

      • Silv

        While at the outset this movie may sound like “Nineteen Minutes,” I don’t think the teens in question sound alike. In Jodi Picoult’s book *****SPOILER ALERT***** the teen’s actions are a result of bullying. In “Kevin” from what it says above the teen is a monstrous psychopath.

      • phil freeman

        posters on here claiming to have read Shrivers book seemed to have missed something. the book is about being a parent and the ultimate quesiton is what if you don’t feel any love for your child from the day of its birth? its a great book

    • MomC

      Jackie – Please just know that this is an intense read. It is an extremely well written book, but is still haunting me (as a mother) five years later. I find Jodi Piccoult su frustrating. I lover her ideas but find the execution horrid (not that I could do better) In my perfect world, JP would develop ideas and Chris Boyjahlian and others would write them.

  • MomC

    I too have read the book – three weeks after having my first child. Brutal is a perfect word for it – brilliant too. I honestly can not imagine sitting through the movie. It is a real horror story.

    • K

      I read it while I was pregnant with my first & it shook me to my core. It’s still one of the best books I have read.

  • Stacie

    Haven’t read the book, but if Tilda Swinton decided it was interesting that’s good enough for me.

    • Ralphie

      She’s about the only one I pictured reading the book years ago. She will be perfect.

      I’m intrigued to see John C Reilly in the role of the father. He’s been doing so many comedies lately but has good dramatic chops that you forget about.

  • sid

    read the book..thought it was amazingly written despite the topic…am glad they are making a movie about it

  • Flip

    I stopped reading this article when the author started disparaging films like The Omen.

    • Anthony Breznican

      Not disparaging. Just saying they’re different. I loved The Omen, but I’m not really afraid of demonspawn.

    • Ralphie

      I see Flip has stopped trolling the Hunger Games threads yelling about Alfred Molina.

  • Rosstwinmom

    I love Kindle. Just sent a sample of this book to mine. Sounds worth the look!

  • Sarah

    I’ve read the book and I’m a mother and I don’t think ‘spend a lot of time with your children’ would have helped in the case of Kevin. His mother knew exactly who he was, without knowing how far he would take it, but she didn’t know what to do. Commit him? What do you do? And the father is stupidly oblivious, to the point of absurdity in my opinion. A bit intimidated to see the movie, since the book is so depressing.

  • Brooke C

    This is completely different and deeper than “Beautiful Boy” because the mother in ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin” does not love her son. She states this over and over again in the book. She is troubled by her indifference to him, which brings to story to a whole new level. It is such an amazing book. I highly recommend it.

    • anne

      She is definitely ambivalent about motherhood and finds Kevin troublingly difficult and strange from the get-go. She doesn’t seem to be devoid of feeling though–she loves her daughter. This was a strange and disturbing book. At one point (even before the horrifying climax), Kevin was revealled to be so unhumanly evil that it finally forced me to un-suspend my disbelief. Still, this book has stuck with me. I think about it from time to time. I don’t know if I’ll go see the movie, but I can’t imagine a better choice than Swinton to play the mom.

    • Ralphie

      Yes. It’s such a disturbing read because you know there are parents out there who should not be parents. Shriver’s book has some brutally honest passages about mothers who never wanted to be mothers and she spends much of the book questioning the nature v nurture debate: was he born a sociopath or did she make him what he is.

      The scope of what he does doesn’t even end with the school massacre. That’s the catalyst for two more events that unravel the mother.

  • Rush

    Is that Michael Jackson in that picture?

    • Tom

      Yep. That’s him. And you thought he was gone? Relish the thought.

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