While everyone is obsessed with the upcoming releases of The Avengers or The Hunger Games and talking about the re-releases of movies less than 20 years old, nobody is talking about the near masterpiece that finally slipped into town unnoticed. Director Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar) has returned with a shocking and profoundly disturbing adaptation of the 2003 novel by Lionel Shriver that blows all the other event movies out of the water. No film will hit you, and haunt you, quite as intensely as We Need To Talk About Kevin. Though I hesitate to use the term masterpiece, I can’t think of many recent films that accomplish as much as this one. The mystery is not in whether Kevin does what he does, but how and why, and the skin-crawling journey unites the audience with the lead characters in uncanny and truly unsettling fashion. (Warning: Spoilers Ahead!)
Whenever a teenager commits a violent crime, you often hear people say things like “I can’t imagine what it must be like to be that kid’s parent.” We Need To Talk About Kevin makes you wish you’d never asked. Stylishly conceived and constructed, the film was unjustly ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This utterly harrowing depiction of a mother trying to live with herself after her child has committed a violent crime could easily have gone down a tv-movie road. Audiences may assume that in a world that has witnessed such horrific acts, the film could only offer a somewhat predictable story arc. But Ramsay’s direction and Swinton’s master class performance brilliantly capture the controversially surreal, emotionally torturous head space of guilt, remorse, blame and self-hatred for the mother of such a child. The film abandons the epistolary framework of the book and deconstructs its suggestion that the influence of his mother’s ambivalence about parenthood created Kevin’s problem or at least enhanced something innate. The extremity of what Kevin does and the Jigsaw-like design of the emotional torture he inflicts seems a far leap to make from that starting point. As the film lays bare, Ramsay has bigger questions in mind. Whichever side of the fence you fall on, if you’ve discussed having children recently this film might make that decision more frightening.
It begins with an eerie shot of a translucent white curtain, billowing in the moon and breeze over an open door to the patio of an austere looking home, accompanied by the sounds of shotgun garden sprinklers. As the camera slowly moves in, the scene dissolves to an overhead shot of our main character at La Tomatina; the streets swimming with yelling crowds and the blazing red of crushed tomatoes, where travel writer Eva Khatchadourian (Swinton), ecstatically overwhelmed by this cultural festivity, bodysurfs above the morass. The flashes of red bridge the transition to a differently overwhelmed Eva in the present tense. Here the camera pans past long-dirty dishes, half-eaten food that’s been sitting out for days, pill bottles, and various other signs of a home clearly under the care of someone who doesn’t care for themselves. She wakes to find herself again doused in red: the sunlight filtered through the splatter of red paint vandalizing the picture window, a sign of her real life piercing her dreams. This opening perfectly establishes the framework for the rest of the film. Her efforts to clean the paint off her home act as a perfect metaphor for her inability to expunge these suffusions of red from her life, and her position as an obnoxious obtrusion into the lives of those around her (who take every opportunity to punish her for her son’s actions).
In flashback we witness Kevin’s birth as an excruciating ordeal survived with no ecstatic payoff. The nurses advise Eva to “stop resisting” as she screams in delivery, with her reflection in the metallic overhead lamp conjuring a quality redolent of horror films. Once she has given birth we see Eva sitting upright in her hospital bed, stonefaced and lost in a daze, not holding her child. None of that stereotypical emotion that overcomes mothers after birth in scenes familiar from so many films and tv shows flashes across Swinton’s face here (as it will with her second child), just a sense of shellshock as her husband cradles the baby Kevin (who is played by a series of exceedingly creepy child actors). As we see Kevin growing up, and Eva coping with decisions she does not agree with (like moving to the country and putting her career on the back burner), Kevin seems to resist Eva in return (in his teen years turning into the most sadistic and remorseless version of the know-nothing know-it-all punk). He rejects toilet-training, forcing his mother to clean and change him long after he is fully communicative and addicted to violent video games. (Any parent who thought their babies crapped on purpose right after they were cleaned and changed will stop complaining after the malevolent relish Kevin displays with his deliberately timed bowel movements). He refuses to speak when he knows how, then refuses to say “Mom” or “Mommy.” He refuses to play (even before he’s walking), preferring to glare at Eva instead. As a baby he’s colic-y non-stop with his mother, then calms down the second his father holds him. Eva tries making nonsense sounds and smiling maniacally at her child to get him to stop crying, (actually stopping at one point to summon up the mental strength to put on that smile again). She takes him out in the stroller, which does nothing. Curiously, she never holds the child close to her, always keeping him at arm’s length (a detail that plays a crucial role in this drama). When she finally does hug her son it feels like she crossed an ocean in the two feet of space between them.
It becomes clear rather quickly that as the story moves forward chronologically in the present tense (after the crime), Ramsay simultaneously reconstructs the day of the crime and the history of the relationship between Kevin and his parents (Swinton and John C Reilly) as random sights and sounds bring Eva back to these painful memories. We drift in and out of Eva’s consciousness where every free moment sends her traveling inward to mull over that fateful day, as well as moments that (in retrospect) cause her to question whether she created this monster or if she could ever have changed him. As the film progresses and Kevin’s behavior grows more disturbing, one wonders if Eva resisted during that delivery scene or if, even as an infant in the womb, Kevin desired to cause his mother pain. Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
The simplicity of Ramsay’s imagery is a subtle and powerful weapon in considering these questions. She trains the camera on expressive details that precisely draw her characters and instantly relay the most mind-boggling truths about them, pointing out mundane details that enable her to incorporate her unique visual sense into the telling of the story rather than adding superfluous style to a thin script. The film is full of visual punches and cues, such as: the colorful balloons and stuffed animal whose cheerful intent stand out in relief against the drab hospital and depressed parents who bought them for their child; the locks on a kitchen cabinet; Eva standing with the stroller next to a jackhammering construction worker in the middle of a city street to drown out Kevin’s nonstop crying; the white inflatable punching bag that Kevin has drawn swirling black squiggles all over, lurking in the background of his childhood bedroom; a teenage Kevin pulling the leavened innards out of breadsticks and crushing them into tiny balls; the reflection of a bull’s eye in his pupils; the peeling and eating of lychee; Eva retreating to the soup aisle while shopping when she sees another parent from the town.
So much of the film’s power lies in our experience of what Eva feels and what she observes in her child and herself, before and after the crime. This Rosemary’s Baby kind of paranoia about her life never dissipates (with the exception of Eva’s one, great, laugh line), and keeps the audience nervously anticipating the next move, the next piece of information about how she got to this point. Even common social situations terrify Eva when we meet her. A woman walks up to her in public and punches her in the face, telling her to rot in hell. Beloved songs (like “In My Room” by the Beach Boys) become anthems of terror. One of the most unsettling sequences in the film concerns nothing more than Eva’s drive home from work on Halloween. As the car winds it’s way through neighborhood streets filled with children mugging in their little monster costumes, Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” plays (also used in the brilliant trailer and which will now forever feel as if Holly’s xylophone mallets were tapping your spine to produce the notes). The lyrics narrate the unspoken thoughts that seem to exist on both sides between Kevin and his parents (“Do you ever long for true love from me?”) as well as the anxiety Eva now feels constantly (“Everyday seems a little longer”). Ramsay cuts back and forth between the mixture of shock, fright and disbelief in Eva’s wide-eyed frantic glances, and the blurring and sharpening focus of the camera’s replication of her view through the rain-decked windshield (harshly lit by her car’s lights and the twisted reflections of streetlamps). By the end of the sequence you feel like you need to run to the wine bottle as fast as she does to relieve the tension.
Ramsy has a quirky sense of music and sound that play very important roles in contributing to the overall effect of the film. One may think that even if Kevin has a clear mental problem, Eva’s lack of maternal instinct could only have exacerbated it. Yet when she has another child, a girl, she has no such problems. Ramsay punctuates these moments where it is clear something is deeply wrong with Kevin apart from Eva’s mothering, with either a Japanese musical cue (shown in one flashback to be a talisman of the first time Kevin guilt trips his mother) or the painfully ironic repetition of the Washington Phillips song “A Mother’s Last Word to Her Son.” Every time you hear these bits of music, you know it is not a good sign. Kevin’s father dismisses the acts of hatred directed at Eva, refusing to accept that there might be a problem. In a brilliant twist, they never say the title. Not hearing this line continually compels the viewer to wonder why these parents aren’t saying these words as Kevin’s behavior continues to escalate, and their disagreement over it causes problems in their marriage. The entire film sustains tension with evocative uses of both spare and overwhelming sonic arrangements in conjunction with the rhyming visual and musical themes dispersed throughout, creating a palpable continuity of Eva’s tortured point of view. Ramsay mirrors her visual montages of Eva’s consciousness with aural montages of words exchanged in court, school, home, and the other sonic details of Eva’s most painful memories (screams, sirens, buzzes, clicks, and thuds). She finds power in simplicity, such as the stony, heartbreaking silence and faint keyboard clicks that greet Eva’s invitation to buy lunch for her new coworkers (at a hole-in-the-wall travel agency that contrasts sadly with her former business of publishing travel journalism). These examples represent just some of the many effective choices made in mixing the soundtrack that contribute to the frustration and despair Swinton works to portray.
Tilda Swinton did receive several accolades for her performance in what by all appearances is the role of a lifetime, and she deserves every one of them. The gamut she runs in portraying Eva far outstrips the demands made of any other actress nominated at the Oscars (Meryl Streep included). She’s a high-powered woman who resents (just a bit) the changes wrought by motherhood, who tries (and fails drastically on occasion) to understand and love an insane child, and who then blames herself (amidst the hatred of the community) for not stopping her child’s crime. Swinton captures the unimaginable anguish of Eva’s life in such a way that her face and body read as openly as reading the script itself. She captures Eva’s tenuous grasp on her very will to live in the zombie-like shuffle she gives her in the present day and contrasts it with her upright posture and purposeful walk before the crime. The slightly vertiginous closeup on her face as Eva watches her son criticize the viewers of his interview on tv captures the taut lines around her bottomless dark eyes and the glazed-over shock that Swinton utilizes frequently. Her blank face and the stiffness in her movement convey a portrait of a woman so beaten down by life that any gesture, step forward or change from her slight frown and de-energized facial expression is the result of a great struggle. Smiles seem like miracles on her face, and it literally hurts to see them wiped away every single time one has reason to begrudgingly crack through. She makes Eva an achingly real person who accepts life in a miserable maelstrom of hysterical depression as penance because she is completely incapable of figuring out how she is supposed to live in this situation.
The film forces us to work out these complex equations of contrasting feelings that always have potentially contrasting readings. In her worst moment as a mother, is Eva consumed by grief/regret or worried about her husband’s reaction to the news that her loss of control broke her son’s arm as she waits at the hospital? (Kevin’s reaction is another telling sign that his brain doesn’t work the way we think it should). Is she scared of her child, or scared that her own failures caused Kevin to commit his crimes?
Eva is not the best mother to Kevin, and their relationship resembles a twisted chess game with dire consequences, but I do not think you can easily chalk Kevin’s behavior up to his mother missing the perfect opportunities to say “I love you.” Frankly, the father comes off as a blind idiot for blaming Eva and showering Kevin with affection and supporting him no matter what, without ever correcting or punishing him for his increasingly noxious deeds. The “adult” Kevin tries to put all the blame for his actions on Eva’s parenting and the media for the attention it gives to violent nutcases. In watching the film, it seems difficult to accept the bizarre theory espoused by other critics who think Eva’s inability to embrace motherhood during pregnancy turned Kevin into a sociopath and criminal, when no such hatred consumes her daughter. The joy she feels when Kevin embraces her and calls her Mom (somewhere around age 8) doesn’t support this interpretation.
It is also unclear what options Eva really has to curb Kevin’s psychotic behavior, when she continuously makes earnest efforts to connect with him, while all the other adults she has spoken to assure her that nothing is wrong. Were his crimes the product of being the experiment on whom his mother and father worked out the parenthood kinks, the proverbial first pancake off the griddle? That is unlikely too, since Kevin is not really lacking for affection or structure in his life, and he actively resists it from his mother long before he has any logical reason to. Pediatricians tell her he’s a normal little boy. Eva’s husband assumes her problem stems from the pains of new motherhood, for wanting to keep her career, and not understanding how little boys act, not that the child is crazy (“he’s just a sweet little boy”). When Eva blames teenage Kevin for a suspicious accident that nearly kills his little sister while he’s babysitting her, her husband suggests she needs to see a psychiatrist. The frustration Eva bottles up results from everyone refusing her insistence that something is wrong, and Kevin altering his behavior around other people so as to isolate Eva within that knowledge. On top of this, seemingly banal objects have devastating consequences and/or meanings (a Robin Hood storybook, a CD-rom that says “I Love You,” a stopped-up sink and a bottle of drain cleaner, a Led Zeppelin t-shirt) that further complicate the question of where the turning point was. When was the opportunity these parents clearly missed to prevent Kevin’s future wrongdoing? It’s easy to see why Eva now lives in constant terror when even the most normal sight in every possible space she inhabits can cause agonizing thoughts, images and sounds to resurface and flood her mind (as anyone who has experienced terrible grief can attest).
The scariest suggestion Ramsay’s film makes is that perhaps Kevin’s conception was the turning point, and with nothing left to lose Kevin and Eva are all that each of them have in the world. Kevin claims the point of his behavior is that it has no point, and admits he doesn’t know if he ever had one. The final sequences of the film indicate (in my view) that Ramsay believes Kevin intended to make Eva suffer, and she intentionally bears that cross after a certain point. By cutting together Eva’s pained reactions with those of Kevin’s victims, she seems like the real target of his violence. But Ramsey goes further, with the graphic matches between their movements highlighting how, from divergent paths, Eva and Kevin have emulated each other in ways that humanize them, and by the end have become one. It would be cruel of me to ruin the shocking and totally devastating payoff of Ramsay’s clever structuring of the story, but suffice it to say that even this humanization does not improve the odds of a happy life or redeem Kevin from culpability. The complexity of Ramsay’s inquiries defy the limited thinking that sees the film as a story about a resentful parent reaping what they sow or the damaging peculiarities of suburban life. Ramsay wants the audience to become one with Eva. When we first witness her final moment of realization, we do not see exactly what it is that tips Eva off that her son is the one responsible, but the look on her face says it in horrifyingly plain terms. Ramsay saves this reveal for the final blow, when the flashes of memory stitched into the film reach their pivotal purpose: to force the audience to truly feel what Eva feels and question our own impulses as she does, in search of an answer to an unanswerable question. It is a sad and uncomfortable place to be as a viewer. It’ll take a few minutes to start talking again once the movie has ended. When you do, you’ll talk for a while… and glance suspiciously at every pregnant woman on the way home.