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.