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We need to talk about Tilda

Tilda Swinton at the Toronto 2011 Film Festival.

When she was not yet five years old, Tilda Swinton told me, she saved the life of her brother. At least that's what everyone told her, and praised her for, and only little Tilda knew that soon after he was brought home from the hospital she intended to murder the baby.

This is not the sort of thing a person usually reveals, but it seemed relevant to our discussion of her harrowing new film, "We Need to Talk About Kevin," which opens Friday at the Music Box. Here is one of the best performances in the career of Swinton, a fearless actresss who takes big risks in her films but rarely one this big. "Kevin" is told entirely from Tilda's point of view, and she's onscreen almost every moment. She plays a suburban mother of two, the wife of a nice man (John C. Reilly), a woman deeply unhappy with motherhood.

It wouldn't be hard to blame her, if you had a son like Kevin. We see him at three stages of life, played by three actors. At the youngest age, what we feel about him is mostly projected: He has a colicky scream, he throws his baby food, she tells him that in all honesty she'd rather he in Paris than cleaning up after him. He's too young to understand her, but don't you suppose even very young children pick up the emotion in a statement like that?

"We Need to Talk About Kevin," by the Scots director Lynne Ramsey, has been called a monster movie. Everyone agrees Kevin is a monster, and some believe that Eva, Swinton's character, is one also. They have no love for one another. Even when he's six to eight (played by Jasper Newell), Kevin understands exactly what buttons to push. His dialogue is brutally cruel. As a teenager (played by Ezra Miller), he has a little trick of playing happily with his father, then catching his mother's eye and staring coldly at her.

You know it's wrong, you feel bad about your feelings, but you want to smack the little beast. Swinton told me the film reminded me of the childhood episode.

"When my third brother was born, I was so upset that it wasn't a girl. I so wanted a sister and I had two other brothers. And I made the mistake of gunning for a girl and when it wasn't a girl and he was brought home from the hospital, I decided to kill him. And I went into his nursery to kill him and I didn't know what I was going to do, I hadn't thought it through. I wasn't a practiced murderer at this stage.

"And I noticed that he had a little sort of bonnet on with some ribbons going into his mouth and I started to pull them out. And then my nanny came from behind me and said, 'Ah, you clever girl! You're saving his life!' So I then had this legendary status in our family ever since as my brother-saver. But what nobody knew and what I had never really acknowledged to myself was that, you know, there but for the grace of a couple of ribbons I might have easily killed my brother; not necessarily in a vicious way but in a way that felt natural to me."

There is a tendency to think of Kevin as Evil, with a capital E. He could have been named Damien, from "The Omen." Swinton said it's more complicated than that:

"I think there is a way in which society tries to push difficult things away from us, and we try and push them away ourselves and say that they are evil, we say that they are foreign, we say that they are not of us, that is not really useful to society. I'm not saying that one necessarily needs to embrace this darkness, but to know that it is of us, that it comes from us. That is really, really important because then we can look at responsibility."

Perhaps that's why, to a degree, Eva and Kevin understand each other so dreadfully well. Their mutual dislike is the substance of their relationship. Eva is patient, says kind things and behaves in a solicitous way, but nobody is fooled. And what about Franklin, her husband, the John C. Reilly character? He maintains a steady, affable friendliness that is almost creepy. After he and Eva have a daughter, he lavishes love on both equally. Kevin goes through the motions of liking him, and he's deceived. Not Eva.

There's a point when she hurls Kevin against a wall. Child abuse, we would assume, but see the scene itself and decide what happened.

"When there's the 'accident,' when she throws him against the wall and breaks his arm," she said, "he calls it the most honest thing she ever did. That's a tough moment, but I think that he appreciated that. He had her attention at that moment. I mean, it would nice to think that it would be possible to get your mother's attention without getting her to break your arm but I think that there's a way in which she really becomes a more functional mother only when he's incarcerated and everything else has gone."

Incarcerated. Yes, Kevin ends up in prison. I haven't described what he did to deserve that, because that would make the movie too easy to categorize. I learn from another interview with Tilda that there was a line of dialogue in the script that didn't make it into the film. Eva asks Kevin why he killed who he did and spared who he did. "You don't want to kill your audience," he replies.

Here are video clips of my talk with Tilda Swinton at Toronto 2011:

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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