wWe Need to Talk About Kevin, 2011.
Directed by Lynne Ramsay.
Starring John C. Reilly, Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, Siobhan Fallon, Ursula Parker and Ashley Gerasimovich.
A mother attempts to deal with the aftermath of a school massacre, committed by her own son.
The man next to me at the urinals was occasionally making the same, deflated sighs as I. We acknowledged as much when we shared a glance in the mirror washing our hands. I’d passed a woman sobbing in the corridor to get there – not audibly, it wasn’t that sort of film – but gently and only for herself. I offered her a smile to share the sadness, and she accepted with one back as if to say, “I know, but there isn’t anything I can do to stop right now.”
Nobody was speaking as we left the cinema, not even the couples and friends of two and three. We’d just been to a funeral of a film.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is based on a book by Lionel Shriver. It’s one of those unfilmable ones, like Morvern Callar. Lynne Ramsay has now made very good films of both.
The book is told in letters from Eva to her husband. She’s trying to overcome the school massacre that their son, Kevin, has committed. Ramsay translates this to screen as a series of flashbacks, tracing through Kevin’s (Ezra Miller) birth up to the massacre, and in the present day with Eva (Tilda Swinton) coping with the aftermath – getting a job; visiting Kevin in prison; scraping off the red paint that has been thrown at her house.
Red is a dominant colour in We Need to Talk About Kevin. It’s everywhere and protrudes menacingly from the pale palette that paints the rest of the set. It’s all the same deep blood red too. It’s the colour of the bouncy ball Eva attempts to pass back and forth with an infant Kevin. She’d roll the ball to him, all smiles, pleading for its return. Kevin only gives back a blank stare, a wry smile curling on the side of his mouth.
It’s the colour of the digital clock’s display on Eva’s bedside table. Ramsay films it out of focus, so the time appears as two red, flashing blurs. They look like warning lights, or perhaps police sirens. Then the numbers slowly come into focus. Ramsay is extraordinary in making the everyday appear strange and threatening.
It’s the colour of the rucksack Kevin dumps onto the kitchen worktop the morning of the massacre. The effort with which he places the bag there shows its weight. Inside it are the tools he will use to finally deconstruct Eva’s life.
A power struggle has existed between them since his birth. Eva loves to travel, but her first-born has shackled her to one place. Then her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly), insists on moving from Eva’s beloved New York so the boy has a yard in which to play. She harbours a resentment, which is only intensified by her child’s abnormal disposition.
Kevin is evil. He cries and wails throughout his infancy whenever with Eva, but falls silent as soon as Franklin arrives home. It’s as though he cries simply to torment her. At one point, whilst pushing Kevin along in a pram, Eva stops by some road works. The pneumatic drill drowns out Kevin’s screams. The expression on her face is tranquil, as though she’s relaxing in a bath.
Kevin’s vendetta continues after infancy. He wears a nappy well past the recommended age, and seems to take a perverse joy when Eva is forced to change him. He ruins her collection of maps – Eva’s prised possessions from her time travelling.
Eva may have her faults, and perhaps a few of Kevin’s psychoses could be blamed on them. But these things reach a point. Eva is portrayed as such a victim, as Kevin’s target during the flashbacks and the subject of the friends and families of the murdered school children’s abuse, that you feel nothing but empathy towards her. So intense is it that you begin to imagine yourself in Eva’s situation. “What would I do?” you ask yourself.
I left the cinema and the crowd diffused into the street. I followed my feet and ended up on the Bakerloo line when all I wanted was the Piccadilly. My mind had deserted me for some time and I was being guided by the funeral’s deep melancholy. Why the Bakerloo? I hadn’t gone this way home for at least six months.
And that’s the genius of We Need to Talk About Kevin’s structure. The events may seem split into the past and the present, but they are in fact following a linear path. This is how Eva is experiencing her present grief. Sounds from the past, present and her imagination constantly overlap. Sometimes images do too.
Events trigger her flashbacks through uncanny objects and movements. The evening’s wind making the patio door’s curtain float into the room recalls the corner of a poster being lifted off the wall by a nearby fan later on. Some are so abstract that they appear as dreams, but they are not. This is simply Ramsay’s knack of making the ordinary fantastic.
But the flashbacks and echoes all work towards something in the end. Not a resolution, but a step in that direction, of understanding. Perhaps that’s what my feet were doing, left as they were to their own devices like Eva’s fragile mind.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a horrible experience, but a hell of a film. Anything that makes you experience such deep empathy should be sought out.
365 Days, 100 Films