Film: We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, 2011)Posted: October 29, 2011
Relentlessly tense and deeply troubling, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a psychological thriller with bucketloads of cinematographic flair
When a book or film is hyped up as much as We Need to Talk About Kevin, a small part of me automatically judges it, presuming it to be slightly worthy and generally tending towards the middlebrow. So I went into the film, not having read Lionel Shriver’s book and carefully avoiding the blanket media coverage, expecting to vaguely appreciate it, but probably not be that swayed. I was greeted with a relentlessly tense and deeply troubling film, whose simple plot is handled with such dexterity that it transcends the story.
The events are disclosed non-linearly, at a lingering pace that gives the film the slow-burn suspense of a thriller, with overtones of the horror genre. Eva Khatchadourian, played by Tilda Swinton, is attempting to deal with an unspecified grief in her past. She is hated and reviled by her neighbours, but accepts the vitriol with no retaliation. We learn that she has a son, predictably named Kevin, who from birth develops an intense aversion to her. He refuses to respond to her affection, switching between extreme passivity to increasingly frequent aggression. Exploiting her endeavours at motherly love, Kevin keeps on luring her in with cold manipulation, only to reject her the more crushingly.
A reverse Oedipus, Kevin is sweet and loving with Eva’s oblivious husband, which causes her to seem unreasonable and more and more isolated, eventually creating an irreparable rift in the marriage. Rather than merely disliking Kevin back, Eva’s feelings towards him encompass resentment, pain, rejection, confusion, repeated attempts at love, hatred, and on rare occasions anger. The prevailing feeling, however, is fear. There is a constant feeling of threat, resolved when Kevin, one day, walks into school and starts killing people.
Ezra Miller as the older Kevin is wonderfully callous and unpleasant (and as Lynne Ramsay puts it, “equally beautiful and repulsive”). He and Tilda Swinton complement each other stunningly: intense stares, high cheekbones, and even matching haircuts. But it is the younger Kevin, at five or six, with his stony expression and devious wiles, who is the most disturbing. All their encounters are taut and uncomfortable: essentially, it is a tragic story of an abusive relationship and unrequited parental love. However, this is not a love that is freely chosen or that Eva can walk away from, but one that is societally imposed and fraught with all sorts of expectations.
The plot owes a lot to Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child (1988), and deals with some of the same ideas as Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, albeit in a much more restrained manner. There is hardly any blood shown at all, but the viewer, like Eva, is never allowed to forget about it. In almost every scene there is a bright red splodge somewhere: paint, strawberry jam, lipstick, red wine, a pattern on a T-shirt. Probably the most surprising thing is how funny the film in: dark humour, certainly, but with some genuinely witty moments.
I was a little apprehensive about Tilda Swinton being cast. I’m not sure what I was afraid of: perhaps that she would take the role on with too much intensity and overshadow the rest of the story. But she is magnificent: sweet, quiet, exuding frustration, patience and sheer stubbornness. A paragon of middle class virtue, Eva is a successful travel writer who loves red wine, France, and living in the city, but is reluctantly dragged to the suburbs by her husband for the good of the children. From this, we may safely infer that her views rest more on the ‘nurture’ side rather than ‘nature’, and would probably blame herself for Kevin’s actions. In her mind, she keeps going over all the times in her past when she lost her guard or her temper, snapping or accidentally hurting him. However, a part of her appears to blame Kevin, and Kevin alone.
Throughout the film, there are two threads that keep you hooked. One: Kevin’s motivations. A comfortable way of thinking about it would be to label him either “pure evil”, or a sociopath in the grip of mental illness. The word ‘autism’ is raised and summarily dismissed. There is something undeniably wrong with Kevin; however, it is difficult to pin down. He is deliberate, lucid and driven in everything he does, and can switch the malevolence on or off at will. There always seems to be a sort of strange logic motivating his actions. The idea of a ‘killer with a mission’ is a common one – from real life cases such as Unabomber to populist films like Se7en and Saw – but perhaps this is a red herring. Eva, and the viewer, is never given an answer which could allow her to comprehend the situation and start dealing with her grief.
The second thread is the reason why Eva doesn’t give up on Kevin, as it is hard to believe that anyone could contend with so much pain and rejection. If it is a kind of motherly love, it is a peculiarly masochistic one. But perhaps it is more complicated – Kevin is at the same time destroying her life, and giving her an entirely new purpose for it, both pushing her away from him and drawing her in.
Many questions are left unanswered, and the most important parts of dialogue are left unsaid, but the final scene provides a dénouement of sorts. We realise that Kevin may not have had a plan, and that Eva might not want to let go of him, because now he is all she has. There is a bizarrely touching moment at the end when you realise quite how intensely dependent on each other the two characters really are.
The underlying question is as fundamental as it is unanswerable: can people be born evil? But there are others. To what extent is Eva to blame (if at all)? Was there any way she could have changed what happened? And, worst of all, how can you be sure that, if you have a child, they won’t end up like Kevin?