March 29th, 2017

Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin

We Need to Talk About Kevin (United States, 2011)
★★☆
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay
Written by: Lynne Ramsay & Rory Kinnear, based on the book by Lionel Shriver
Starring: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller

Eva Katchadourian (Tilda Swinton) is a free-spirited young travel writer, living in an inner-city high-rise apartment with her loving husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) and experiencing the world’s most exotic locations on behalf of those without the freedom to do so themselves. She embraces with open arms and an open mind the everyday religious experiences her life offers her – like being stained a deep shade of red at Valencia’s annual tomato festival.

Cut to two decades later and Eva is living alone in a rundown suburban townhouse, barely able to get a job as a secretary at a travel agent, scrubbing the front of her house free of the deep red paint splattered over it by vandals in the night. She is spat on and punched by passing townspeople at she walks to and from the store, where – in a jarringly obvious attempt at repetitive symbolism – she hides among the Campbell’s tomato soup cans to avoid a confrontation with another resident. She visits her teenage son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), in prison weekly, though they rarely say more than a few words to each other, and her time at home and work is most closely described as unceasing torture, brought to life on the screen by a brilliant combination of Tilda Swinton’s incredibly restrained performance, Johnny Greenwood’s minimalist score and Paul Davies’ claustrophobic sound design.

We Need to Talk About Kevin examines how Eva comes to terms, both outwardly and within her own psyche, with Kevin committing a massacre at his high school, and how she re-frames his entire childhood as a series of classic serial-killer early warning signs. It is never made clear whether Kevin’s upbringing really did occur how she remembers it – as her and her husband trying valiantly but unsuccessfully to raise a reincarnation of a Batman supervillain – or if her memories are just the revisionist recollections of a mother who knows she was distant and emotionally neglectful, resenting her son for robbing her of a life and career she loved.

Director Lynne Ramsay’s decision to present her film in this entirely subjective way is interesting, but ultimately gives its audience nothing to do, no way to engage. We are presented with a series of events seen through the adulterated haze of remorse, but because the Kevin of Eva’s memory is so one-dimensionally (almost comically) evil in every way, even as a baby, he cannot possibly be a true representation of the real Kevin. Therefore, we cannot sympathise with Eva because, for all we know, her Kevin is nothing like the real Kevin, and her miserable existence may be at least partially her own fault.

On the flip side, even if Eva and Franklin were neglectful parents whose emotional abuse drove their son to commit his terrible crime, we wouldn’t know because we are allowed no insight into his psychology, no exploration of events from his point of view, and no chance to make up our own minds about him. Subjective experience and memory is explored to marvelous effect in a number of films, most famously Akira Kurosawa’s Rashōmon, but works best when it is shown in conflict with the subjective experience of others, or objective truth, to give an audience the ability to place it in context.

Ramsay places equal importance on eliciting sensory and intellectual reactions to her film, but while her contrasting colour motifs and unsettling visuals are beautifully shot and emotionally evocative, behind the façade We Need to Talk About Kevin is as emotionally bereft and oppressively miserable as its titular character.

About Bradley J. Dixon

Bradley J. Dixon is a freelance writer and blogger from Melbourne.

Comments

  1. I actually think that there is something quite profound about the subjective experience that Ramsay gives us through Eva. Sure, Kevin seems to be more cartoonish than would be realistically possible (and yes we can argue that this representation of him is entirely in the recollection of Eva’s mind), but there is something quite tragic about that manipulation of the memory in order to cope with the trauma experienced from the shooting. While I think the film is far from perfect, thinking about it further in that subjective context redeems some of the features of the film I initially disliked: mostly its minimalist exploration of the rich potential of themes.

    What I kind of see the film now to be is just a wholly subjective exploration of trauma and the way in which particular individuals react to it. Some will seek therapy in others or externalise their trauma with either self-inflicted or projected violence and abuse (think the people who attack or reject Eva), whereas others will internalise and reconfigure their memory of events as to shift blame or to help them understand the incident. Eva is obviously of the later, and thinking about it in that way has made me appreciate the film more than I did. Hahaha sorry man, I kinda just spilled out there but it was literally one of those writing and discovering things simultaneously. Brilliant. I kind of want to see the film again now.

    • I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the past couple of days too, especially after I read a couple of five-star reviews and wondered if I was being too harsh to dismiss the visual style and focus on its lack of a purpose/message.

      If it is just meant to be a presentation of how Eva modifies her memory of Kevin’s upbringing to rationalise her own guilt (which is how I read it too, but there are many others who interpret it differently), like I say, it’s an interest way of exploring The Event, and grief, and subjectivity, etc. But what I would have loved to have seen in that case is how that affected Kevin himself, once he was in prison, and how he dealt with his mother basically seeing him as Satan incarnate.

      The scenes in prison are pretty much the only objectively-experienced scenes in the film, we’re not seeing Eva’s recollection of them (although some people think they were flashbacks as well), and by that stage Kevin is essentially Hannibal Lecter, as either you or Adam said. So that could have one of two explanations: Kevin really is evil, Eva’s memory is relatively close to reality, and he continues to despise her even from prison because, hey, that’s just his bag. Or, he was an ordinary boy with a difficult upbringing due to a resentful mother, who pushed him to become an emotional outsider, and only now, in prison, is he able to understand what he’s done and why.

      But since we don’t know either way, it’s almost as if we can’t put our eggs in either of those baskets, so we’re sort of stuck in the middle thinking “yeah, that’d be terrible if it was true, but is it true?”.

      Not that I’m suggesting it should have been done differently, because I understand what Ramsay was trying to do, I just felt like it undermined its own effectiveness by making its audience unsure of what they were seeing.

      • Could the prison sequences be a further extension of Eva’s projection of Kevin? I mean they seem to be objective, but images like the (great) nail biting shot seem to suggest otherwise, that Eva is still re-adjusting her view of Kevin, scrutinising his every move, finding ways to judge his behaviour in order to fulfil the new model of Kevin she has now created.

        I don’t know if I want to look at it as a “is it true or not” type scenario. Some of the best films are not overtly obvious in their intent but are still genuinely affecting and moving. I think if we consider the events as operating in Eva’s subjective consciousness then it raises some interesting issues about trauma theory and how people deal with it so close to home/heart. If it so happens that it leans more to the objective side then it brings up some interesting issues into the notion of parental/child discourse and nature/nurture argument.

        If it is the later, then I stand by my somewhat disappointment in the way the themes seem to be blatantly depicted and not explored as competently. If it is the former (which I’m leaning to a bit more now) then in combination with the genuine affect and subtext that the visuals elicit, it’s a damn fine film.

        *Looks for torrent of the film*

  2. Good review btw hehe.

  3. Dave says:

    I really like this review, I walked out thinking it was a really great film and I love nothing more than to read conflicting reviews to get me to think about it more.

    I think what the film could’ve done better is had both subjective and objective flashbacks (and I think the flashback where Eva is saying “I wish I could go to France and my life was better without you” – I’m paraphrasing) was the only objective, revealing flashback. The rest was Eva’s subjective version of events, which I suppose still makes an interesting film as a mother’s revision of history to deal with her son’s murders. But, we could’ve had both revised history, and factual history.

    • Yeah, there’s no way to know whether that would have made a better film but it certainly felt like I would have engaged with it more. But at the end of the day I guess we have to respect Ramsay’s choices.

      Cheers for the comment. 🙂

  4. Ruth says:

    I’m afraid I’m with Tom Clift on this one, I thought this was a brilliant film!

    • That’s cool; different strokes for different folks. The more I think about it in hindsight the more I appreciate the stylistic elements of it and the less I worry about the problems I had with it. I’ll re-visit it next year and see how it stands up.

  5. Ruth says:

    You make your points very well though!! Tilda was magnificent.

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