Paul Lister’s review published on Letterboxd:
“Why would I not understand the context? I am the context.”
Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s ‘We Need to talk About Kevin’ has the benefit of the author’s thumbs up. It is rare indeed that an author applauds a film adaptation of their work as a success. The film itself plays like a Maternal Horror film, a look into the relationship between mother and son and the culpability of horrific actions, the full details of which are kept from us until the end of the film. There is a real sense foreboding dread as the film plays out and it delves into the history of the relationship between mother and son, juxtaposed with the life of the mother after the incident. What’s more the film teases us with nightmarish glimpses at the incident that ultimately shapes the film. ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ is an outstanding film, with a real artistic streak to accompany its maternal horror; the idea that a maternal love is not always a given. It also features terrific performances from Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller the latter of which really bursts onto the screen in his role as Kevin.
Swinton stars as the Mother of Kevin (Miller), Eva Khatchadourian. The film goes back and forth between before the incident and afterwards highlighting the distinct differences in her living conditions, appearance and career. In the present she looks older, her is unkempt, lacking in colour even with some gray hairs. She is wearing an old oversized Led Zeppelin t-shirt and lives in a small house which has been vandalised. Further to this she owns a really cheap and old car and has just successfully gained employment at a local travel agents. She is treated like a guilty person by people in the street, some reactions to her are so shockingly violent it reminds me in part of Thomas Vinterberg’s ‘The Hunt’, in which Mads Mikkelsen’s character is abused in the street for something he is merely accused of doing. In stark contrast to this we go back in time, Eva is fresh looking; her hair is very dark and short, smart even. Her clothes are stylish and fashionable; she has a really good career going. Eva is also in a relationship with Franklin (John C. Reilly), the owner of the Led Zeppelin t-shirt. Together they are a couple very much in love and they are successful too. Things are about to change for them once Eva becomes pregnant with Kevin.
The pregnancy comes as a shock to Eva, she is clearly not ready for such a responsibility as her career is very much on the upward curve, having a child will clearly put the buffers on it. It is clear that she is uneasy with idea of being a mother at this stage in her life; even surrounded by pregnant women she is ill at ease. Franklin on the other hand embraces the idea of new life. When she gives birth to Kevin she is ambivalent to him, she tries to warm to him but her attempts are clearly empty of real feeling and Kevin instantly picks up on this. Eva struggles with raising Kevin the way any parent would, it is a tough deal raising a child, a really huge responsibility. She cannot deal with the constant crying to the point where she stops in front of a builder drilling, with Kevin in tow, just to drown out the sound of crying. That in itself is an incredibly selfish to do, an incredibly damaging thing to do. In fact she visits a doctor to check if he is deaf, citing that the lack of audible response from Kevin was worrying to him. It is the guilt of having the child exposed to such a violent sound that prompts her to do this, rather than any real worry for Kevin. The other issue is that Kevin grows to be such a horrifying child, a does so many things that are unacceptable, his treatment of her is awful even if it is in part a response to her treatment of him. The film then may ask the simple question of, ‘Is the mother responsible for Kevin’s actions?’ but it is never as simple as a yes or no answer. Eva represses her desire to confront Kevin but Kevin himself could easily do something to ease the negative effects of the relationship, the fact is he doesn’t want to.
Kevin’s father, Franklin is also in part responsible for Kevin’s actions. Franklin turns a blind eye himself. He is in denial of Kevin’s actions and instead feels the need to label Eva as troubled. Franklin also is seen to be playing violent video games with Kevin in which Kevin is heard screaming, “Die, Die” at the screen. Now I hate the whole video game violence argument in relation to the violent high school massacres that have become all too shockingly frequent but it is no coincidence that that scene is in there. Further to this it is Franklin who provides Kevin with the gift of an archery set. The Bow and arrow is instrumental in Kevin’s actions later in the film. Kevin in fact hates his father as much as his mother but is a shroud actor, only letting his guard down during a scene in which he is ill. This is the only time he ever warms to his mother, he still be acting at this point though because he knows just as much as anyone that a sick boy needs his mother to comfort him. This is also the only time he is horrible outwardly to Franklin, whom he is usually chummy with. The dynamic he has with Franklin also allows the seeds of marital woe to be set as he just cannot get behind Eva’s idea that Kevin is somehow touched by the devil.
Even though the film isn’t trying to be a portrayal of a devil child I cannot help but think about it as a possible source of interest. Kevin’s eyes are filled with evil in my mind, he is so cold and calculated and so fiercely intelligent beyond his years as well. It isn’t the real reason behind what is happening because that isn’t real but I think Ramsey has fun with playing on the wicked way in which Kevin acts to the point where you do have to consider it. In fact the reality is grimly based in the reality that this family’s neglect of each other in the face of an obvious problem has caused the unforgivable actions of Kevin. It is only when the events that transpired unfold before us that we get a true sense of the horror of it though. Kevin not only massacres kids at his school he also kills his father and sister. When Eva confronts him in prison on the second year anniversary of the incident Kevin, she asks, “Why?” At first it would seem obvious that this was Kevin’s disgusting way of making his mother live in guilt but his response suggests he no longer knows why he did it. It certainly rules out the possibility of him being a devil child if it wasn’t already obvious.
Lynne Ramsey’s film is also a very artistically designed film; I love the score which uses the actual sound of drills, saws and buzzing to get under the skin of the viewer. The films visuals are replete with vivid colour, the red paint in which Eva’s house is vandalised with, the paint in which she redecorates the interior of the same house, the Spanish festival that opens the film, La Tomatina which consists of the largest food fight in the world is such a visually rich beginning, I can only imagine it is to highlight a time when Eva was at her most free and uninhibited.
‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ isn’t exactly a horror film by genre but to me it is a horror film at its natural core. It is a frightening dissection of the trappings of parenthood and idea that a mothers maternal instincts are not necessarily a given. It is also hard to not think about the numerous shocking massacres in American high schools of the past decade or more. The answer to who is culpable isn’t as simple as whether it is just the parents or forms of media that youngsters are exposed to these days. In this film Kevin is so deeply intelligent it makes it all the more disturbing because it makes you feel that the responsibility may be nothing but his own. That is as deeply disturbing as anything I could imagine.