An unspecified time after a terrible tragedy hits a small-town American community, Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) begins her new job in a menial travel agency, a poor facsimile of her previous career as a globe-trotting journalist. Ostracised from her community and enduring regular humiliation in various guises, Eva attempts to gradually rebuild her life, reflecting upon the events leading up to the tragedy: Her marriage to the affable, easy-going Franklin (John C. Reilly) and, most crucially, the troubled development of their son Kevin (played as a teen by Ezra Miller). Kevin is a supremely difficult child, increasingly cold and adversarial towards Eva, testing both her patience and affinity with motherhood. It becomes increasingly apparent that Kevin is in some way complicit in the tragedy, but how much responsibility should Eva share?
It’s of course naive to consider director Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Schriver’s best selling book as in any way prescient of the recent shootings in Aurora, Illinois. However, the pending case of James Eagan Holmes does help highlight a recurring problem in attempting this subject matter. Ben Coccio’s Zero Day (2003) is a found-footage video diary of two teenagers preparing to execute a Columbine-like attack. Despite the optimised effort at portraying reality, very little of the run-time is spent with any real rumination of their motives. In a similar manner to Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, another high school massacre movie released in the same year, it’s more an exercise in ruthless banality. The point is presumably that such terrible crimes are either beyond the pat conclusions of three-act narrative, or that as an audience we’ve yet to earn the cathartis of a psychological buffer between ourselves and the perpetrators. On the surface, and at the risk of trivialising atrocity, the real-life background of Holmes would attest to this point. Beyond his social ineptitude, accumulation of weaponry, and of course his alleged mass killing, there doesn’t appear to be much to single him out as nefarious. In the context of a drama, it leaves the production in a bit of vacuous state. If we don’t glean any real lesson or insight into our characters and situation, what’s the point?
“There is no point..” opines Kevin, rather helpfully, partway through the film, “that’s the point“. However, despite this nihilistic corroboration, We Need to Talk About Kevin deviates from its thematic predecessors in three main ways. Primarily, it eschews a linear approach for something more lurid and stylised, albeit ruthlessly grounded in events. In fact, it’s a production tour-de-force that should, if accounting for a modicum of innate justice, bring Lynne Ramsay to the forefront of respected contemporary directors. This is particularly in light of the endless precession of washed-out gangster films and derivative zombies that comprise the majority of the British film industry’s output. Secondly, the film never in all honesty portrays Kevin as a ‘normal’ kid compromised by social influence. For one thing, he lacks the ‘jocks picked on me’ defence and is the product of an ostensibly affluent environment. Almost from his birth onwards, Kevin is nakedly malevolent and sociopathic. Thirdly, the film is told entirely through the perspective of Kevin’s mother, Eva, whose flashbacks to his upbringing are potentially unreliable. It’s possible within the logic of the story that Kevin’s unpleasantness is magnified through the prism of Eva’s masochistic hindsight.
In the supplemental material, cast and crew attempt to paint a film with no good and evil people. That’s certainly a more noble aim, rather than the reductive notion that ‘evil’ is a tangible or innate affliction. Unfortunately, it’s not the prevailing assumption of the film that one is left with. On the upside, Kevin is a truly memorable creation, particularly when coming of age as a cold, bullying, yet unerringly perceptive youth. He singles out his mother for victimisation at an implausibly early age; it’s simply never convincing enough that his personality stems organically from Eva’s maternal antipathy. The knock-on effect is that we never interpret her as truly culpable in her own struggles, not even subsequently. As a psychological insight into those who commit such atrocity – presuming that as an intention – it fails. Its successes, however, neatly eclipse these admitted disappointments.
From the opening shot of billowing curtain leading out to a twilight patio, it’s evident we’re in different territory than a standard genre affair. The composition is frequently stunning, every other shot providing a desktop-worthy snap. The film drenches itself in symbolism, much of which rewards with subsequent viewings. Every transition seems carefully built for healthy musing, as aural and visual callbacks are elegantly intimated. Editor Joe Bini should be singled out somewhat for this; seamlessly bringing us back and forth through time without a loss of coherence is no mean feat.
As has been noted among Ramsey’s previous work, there’s a frequently vivid use of colour. Chiefly red, most explicitly in the paint attack suffered by Eva’s new house, her resulting clean-up punctuating the movie. The colour is there in children’s toys, police lights, food thrown petulantly against a fridge etc. The scenes of Eva literally cleaning off red paint from her body and environment may smack of thuddingly literal imagery – a problem the film periodically suffers from – but the cumulative effect is potent and satisfying. For a film containing so much repression and denial among the central characters, the colour serves almost to throw it all into sharp relief. It’s this sense of hyper-reality that helps buoy the film during its broader psychological moments.
Tilda Swinton is fantastic throughout, serving a tremendous dynamic of character as we track one woman’s emotional and existential descent. John C. Reilly gives a fine performance, though is a slightly bemusing presence; despite being a fine dramatic actor, his role seems to echo the kinds of endearing man-children that gave his career a deserved second wind. Franklin is a magnanimous sort, to the point of frustration, so it remains a logical fit. The chemistry between he and Eva is deliberately questionable, adding to the malapropros climate of the film. Ezra Miller luxuriates in the role of Kevin, the child actors (Rocky Duer and Jasper Newell) having already set the stage by playing the character at his more conflicted. Here, he’s given full license to exude pure, sweating ego and unaccountable contempt, yet somehow without nudging too much into cartoon.
We Need To Talk About Kevin sidesteps many real-world concerns surrounding these tragedies, such as gun control, religion or cultural identity. This isn’t quite a point against it, as hitting broader notes can strengthen the symbolic drive. It does however prohibit the film from making any kind of proactive stance, leaving it vulnerable to numerous self-defeating interpretations. It would be unfair to derive political assumptions when events on-screen are to an extent knowingly in excess of reality. Despite employing a sophistication that exceeds the majority of ‘evil kid’ genre movies, the film gives a more satisfying reading as liberal horror, or perhaps a feminist allegory about the sacrifices of motherhood. Eva is slapped, taunted and dehumanised throughout the run-time, yet appears to endure it voluntarily as a form of penance. Depending on your political leanings, the central folly of the Khatchadourian household is either an absence of communication, or an absence of discipline. It’s a tale of an ostensibly nice, wealthy family fatally disarmed by the apparent product of their own values. Beyond the peadophobic fantasy aspects, the fear at the heart of this story is ultimately primal and very palpable; its the fear that we’re vulnerable in our own home, by those closest to us. It’s also the fear – and knowledge – that problems we ignore don’t remotely go away.