Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is without question one of the decade’s most challenging works of fiction, asking uncomfortable social questions and fundamentally uprooting some of the key values we hold dearest regarding child development. Too apt it is, then, that Lynne Ramsay’s film adaptation is equally beguiling; a visceral, stunningly performed cinematic odyssey that will surely be recognised as one of the best films of the year.
Kevin crowbars open the controversial debate once again which has plagued anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists for decades, of whether it is innate, natural characteristics, or how a person is nurtured, which determines their course in life. Framed by the unexpected massacre of a number of high school students at the hands of a fellow pupil, Kevin Khatchadourian (Ezra Miller), Shriver and Ramsay then turn to the perpetrator’s mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton), as she tries to make sense of what he has done, recounting key moments in Kevin’s upbringing, while trying to reconcile her own role as a mother.
When children commit such unimaginable acts of violence, we often turn to blaming the nearest convenient outlet, such as violent entertainment media, as with our own Jamie Bulger case citing violent horror films as a possible cause. Surely more disturbing however, is the lack of a definite avenue to assign blame altogether, as with 1999’s Columbine shootings; there is no clear-cut, easily explained solution, and the same is true of our predicament in this film. While Gus Van Sant’s Elephant was both done and undone by its refusal to commit to one stance – instead mining every conceivable possibility and throwing it at the wall – We Need to Talk About Kevin swims in a less-monotonous sense of ambiguity. It does, however, toy with one of the more likely catalysts for Kevin’s actions, examining how he was raised and how, just like anyone, he sought out that fundamental love from a mother that everyone needs.
Through a non-linear narrative, we fleet seamlessly between the present and various stages of the past, specifically, Kevin’s development as a child. Superb, Oscar-worthy editing from Joe Bini (for which he recieved a special commendation at Cannes) nimbly prevents temporal confusion, while at same time creating an extremely uncomfortable, dread-filled atmosphere. The film’s unsettling aesthetic initially paints Eva’s world as vibrant and hopeful – the opening scene features her younger and without Kevin, bathing in tomatoes at the Tomatina festival – and slowly desaturates, ending in a grey, dank prison in which hope and closure are hard to find. These meticulous artistic motifs help Ramsay build an aggressive atmosphere heading towards the inevitable night in question, while, when the time comes, steering clear of inappropriate exploitation, instead training the camera on Kevin’s face as he fires arrows into his fellow schoolmates.
Kevin is, of course the child from Hell, and Ezra Miller is unbelievably effective – not to mention creepy in the most Kubrickian sense – as Kevin’s oldest iteration, positively bereft of remorse while still frighteningly recognisable as the rebellious youth we all once were. The younger child actors tasked with capturing some of Kevin’s crucial episodes as a toddler, meanwhile, are astonishingly naturalistic, and essentially set Miller up to take the stage for his own.
The contribution that will get most people talking, however, is the tremendous performance from Tilda Swinton as Kevin’s frazzled mother. Steadily, she encompasses the film’s uneasy themes of motherhood as a socially-enforced institution – probably not capable of looking any less comfortable as she plays with Kevin as a toddler – while still remaining sympathetic and personable right through to the conclusion, taking the brunt for Kevin’s crimes, being slapped and spit on in the street by frustrated parents.
Easy to forget in Swinton’s shadow though thoroughly valuable on his own merits here is John C. Reilly, who is effective in a minimal role as Kevin’s absurdly optimistic and deluded father, positively unable to reconcile the fact that his dream of an adoring, white-picket-fence family isn’t coming true. Reilly takes full of advantage of his innate comic playfulness and projects it to the max as the film’s hopelessly steadfast proponent of the American Dream.
The devastating lack of closure will frustrate many, especially psychologists and academics keen to ascribe a cause and effect to everything we do. But that is the film’s beautiful reactionism; it denies its titular character easy categorisation as crazy or unloved, leaving the viewer to ponder just as we still do about those kids from Columbine High School. It might not satisfy everyone, but as they say, that’s life.
Amid a dreamlike concertina of heartbreaking imagery – and a mesmerising turn from Tilda Swinton – this is a trenchant and thought-provoking treatise on modern families, specifically the put-upon mother, whose role is to raise, to nurture, and tragically, to account for the terrible things her children might do.
We Need To Talk About Kevin opens in the UK on Friday.
This is our second glowing write-up on the film after our 4.5 star review from Cannes.