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Non-Review Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin

We Need to Talk About Kevin is powerful, visceral cinema. It’s the kind of movie that makes you want to take a nice long, hot shower after coming home. It’s unsettling in a way that doesn’t rely on cheap shocks or gratuitous violence – it just makes you feel unclean. Truth be told, I think that any film taking this sort of subject should feel this uncomfortable – I’m not sure I could stomach a film about this sort of thing that wasn’t uncomfortable. However, while the disjointed structure of the film adds a wonderful complexity and sense of uncertainty, I can’t help but feel that certain aspects were a little tooambiguous – falling into the familiar trap that one must have read the book in order to fully grasp everything that’s going on. Still, it makes for a very unsettling viewing experience.

Baby trouble...

The story follows Eva Khatchadourian, living in the shadow of a horrible action committed by her son. Unable to escape the infamy, living in a small house in the middle of nowhere, constantly watched and resented by those around her, Eva has time to think. Despite her best efforts to drown it out with alcohol and pills, and even the sound of the train running near her dingy little home, she reflects back on the early years spent raising her son, Kevin.

I appreciate the film’s candour. I’m reminded of that great tagline from Hanna“sometimes children are people too.” Kevin is most certainly a bad egg, the kind of child who elicits comments like “there’s something just not quite right about him.” He’s abusive, physically and emotionally, clever and sullen and bitter. However, Eva seems to be the only person who notices that there’s anything wrong. Kevin charms his father with smiles and affection in return for gifts and emotional support. While Kevin resents his little sister, she seems to live in awe of her big brother, catering to his every whim. “Kevin says I’m stupid and he’s right,” she remarks at one point. Eva is the only person who sees Kevin for what he really is – and the movie implies that he allowsher to do so. What little honest expression we get from the teenage sociopath comes in quiet conversation with his mother.

Tomato soup for the soul?

The movie is open-ended. It suggests that Kevin’s issues are somehow rooted in the family, despite his apparent indifference. His violence seems to escalate when his sister arrives, or when he notices strain developing between his mother and father. The targets of his violence are rivals for familial love, anything that his family might harbour more affection for than him. Was Kevin a child who was messed up from the start? Or did his mother’s ambivalence to motherhood somehow transfer to him? Eva gave up a promising career and massive freedom to take care of a child who takes sadistic glee in emotionally torturing her. When he remarks his mother can be vicious and scathing, he asks, “where do you think I get it from?”

Blame is a natural part of moments like this – and the movie bravely offers any number of reasons for Eva’s guilt, which is a daring take. We see all those little moments that she must reflect on, and those she must play over and over and over again in her head – wondering if, had anything gone differently, the outcome might have been different. What if she’d been more affectionate to him when he was younger? What if she’d been harsher towards him? What if she reacted to any of the signs that seem so obvious in retrospect? The movie doesn’t try to mount a defense of Eva, which is something I admire about it – it plays out the mother’s guilt and truststhe audience to give it due consideration. The script, adapted by Lynne Ramsey and Rory Kinnear, respects its audience enough to let them make their own judgments.

No flight of fancy...

(Though, it’s worth stating that I tend to lean towards “of course not”, but I think it’s very brave of the movie to show the case for the prosecution in this perpetual show trial Eva has arranged for herself, with her own verdict already decided. Guilt isn’t rational, and we’re seeing some very biased family memories, guided by hindsight. That said, Ramsey and Kinnear are shrewd enough to leave the topic open to discussion, and I respect that.)

Director Lynne Ramsey does a wonderful job transitioning the tale from the page to the screen. The Scottish director has a wonderful eye for visual metaphors – with red oozing out of every scene, and constant establishing shots of Eva trying to clean up a gigantic red mess at the front of her house. The shots are unsettling and disturbing – lots of close-ups on Kevin playing with his food (peeling nuts and chewing graphically) and lots of shots of people eating. Ramsey cleverly doesn’t really feature the act itself – instead offering disjointed coverage of the lead-in and the aftermath – we see the warnings, we see the planning, we see the consequences, we see the lives ruined. It’s a very clever way of structuring the film.

A nice family dinner...

However, this is also the film’s crucial weakness. It’s a little too disjointed at times. I know that it is meant to symbolise the chaos and the randomness of this sort of thing – the inability to process it – but it occasionally obscures the actual storytelling. Certain plot points aren’t clear. For example, we hear a lawyer mention “punitive damages” outside a courtroom, presumably explaining how Eva lost her money and her house as a means of self-punishment… but what was she paying punitive damages for? It’s hardly a wrongful death suit, is it? Or did she sue for defamation and lose… badly? I know why the scene is there, and what purpose it serves, but plot points like that do need a little more explanation. Indeed, even the movie’s central plot twist raises all sorts of questions about how the community treats her, and why their anger isn’t tempered by some measure.

Still, these are relatively small complaints. Tilda Swinton is the star of the show. She really needs to make more movies. Swinton is always a quality actress, even when I’ve disliked some of her films. I’m not confident enough to label this her best performance, but she is pretty incredible, and she does a great deal of the film’s heavy-lifting – especially in the early scenes, as Ramsey’s direction finds its footing. Ezra Miller offers solid support as Kevin, and I love the way the film treats virtually every other character as peripheral – keeping the two in shot while other actors are only half-visible or that sort of thing.

The trouble with Kevin is already a-parent...

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a tough film to watch, but it really should be. It’s disturbing and it’s heavy, but those qualities are to its credit. It’s a film worth talking about.

5 Responses

  1. Great review of a really good movie. Like you say you really want to wash this of you as it does get under your skin. The amazing performance of Swinton is a big part of that, although the kid was pretty creepy too!

  2. The trailer was deeply unsettling and I almost can’t imagine watching this in a theatre.

  3. I saw it yesterday, and it was very strange to see the entire cinema rooted in their seats for a few long seconds after the credits started to roll. It was as if no one knew how to respond, they were in some kind of haze.

    There are many questions left unanswered by the film, and the book does resolve most of them. It also gives a much better insight into just how calculated Kevin’s actions were.

  4. I was so excited when I heard to book was being made into a film, but also a little afraid that they wouldn’t do it justice, as the subject is so difficult. It was a tough book to read because of the questions it asked about motherhood, responsibility, nature/versus, and the fear that a lot of women have they they won’t automatically love their children. It gave a terrifying voice to all these dark questions people ask themselves but never say out loud.

    I loved the film and think that it took the right direction in not trying to deal with all of the above issues. But instead honed in on the relationship between the mother and son. The performances of Swinton and Miller were pitch perfect, and within the opening scene all my worries about a shoddy book to film adaptation were alleviated.

    • Great film. One of the ones it truly hurt me to leave off my “best of 2011” last year. Everybody seems to be on about how 2011 was a disappointing year, but I thought it was great, if unconventional.

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