We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

03 November 2011

Lynne Ramsay chose to direct her adaptation (co-written with Rory Kinnear) of Lionel Shriver's 2003 novel We Need to Talk About Kevin with an intentionally grating texture of recurring visual and aural motifs and a great deal of heavy symbolism. The result is an effectively claustrophobic and unsettling film. But what else?

Eva (Tilda Swinton) and Franklin (John C. Reilly) are financially comfortable parents to son Kevin, and later a daughter, Lucy. The film focuses primarily on Eva's relationship with Kevin, problematic from the outset, and develops as we observe the trials and tribulations of parenting a child who, no matter how he's approached, seems adamant in his hostility towards his family in general and his mother in particular.

This plot strand is handled in flashbacks of varying length; parallel to them, we see present-day Eva (a different haircut orientates us from one time frame to another) in her attempts to carry on a life in the aftermath of a high school massacre carried out by her teenaged son, in which other people's sons and daughters were killed or maimed. Spotting one victim's mother in the supermarket, Eva rushes out of sight to avoid a confrontation, only to return and find the whole tray of eggs she had in her trolley have been deliberately smashed.

So far so good, but though this latter example is just one of many interesting individual scenes in the film, the overall fabric is strained. There's very little nuance to this film, which makes it so effective on one level, but at the risk of sounding intellectually insatiable, We Need to Talk About Kevin doesn't talk much about anything, if it does anything at all. Once it has established its tone and mood and central doomed relationship (with opening images of joyous euphoria offset by a chilling insistence on staying with a scene long past its informational disclosure, suggesting its overflowing reds have other, more disturbing meanings), the film becomes belaboured. It is distinctly one-note.

Played at successive stages by Rock Duer, Jasper Newell and finally Ezra Miller, Kevin is an impossibly calculating toddler before developing into a cipher-cum-belligerent prick, the kind (should one exist) who continues to jerk himself off upon his mother walking in on him, who plays the idyllic son for an implausibly wet dad at the same time as he gives mom the evils. Reminiscent of Damien Thorn, the character is suggested to be intrinsically evil from the outset, his high school massacre a logical and unavoidable conclusion that no number of other factors have a say in.

Indeed, for all its suggestive horror and careful - and powerful - ellipses, during which the more horrific incidents in the film occur (Eva seems in constant catch-up, emotionally and narratively), Kevin is still a conscious refusal to even attempt to understand the horrors involved in high school massacres. Though it doesn't fetishize its subject matter in any way - far from being some articulately desirable adolescent, Kevin is a charmless mess of repugnant incoherence - the film's makers are apparently content in not providing any insights into its characters or their deeds and outlooks.

This is seemingly the point, of course, which is why it makes the film so discomfiting (all those images of Eva washing scarlet acrylic off her porch or scraping dry paint off her window with a razor undeniably "work"). But it's also too easy to make a film like this, especially given the wealth of precedents. Indeed, the film seems to acknowledge its debt to 2003's Elephant when Eva tries to encourage her son to mouth the word, "elephant"; towards the end of the film, meanwhile, Kevin's self-forged martydom recalls Martin Sheen's in 1973's Badlands.

In Kevin - awarded Best Film at the London Film Festival last week, which doubles as a way by which the BFI can endorse Lynne Ramsay's welcome return to filmmaking - the scenes come fast and the symbolism comes thick. Ramsay is clearly a talented filmmaker, though shows with this film - her first feature in nine years - that a richer subject matter awaits and demands her directorial skill. Some weaknesses are present: that shot after Eva's eggs have been smashed, of the culprit, adds nothing to what was already clear, while that shot of Kevin looking at a photograph of Eva in a bookstore window, only to disappear at the same speed at which a bus veils our view of him, is a tired cliché. (Some of the dialogue, meanwhile, is terrible; maybe deliberately so, which makes it all the more grating.)

More fundamental problems persist. In the "present-day" scenes, the communal response to Kevin's killings is unequivocal and one-dimensional. Shots of work colleague Colin (Alex Manette) gazing half-threateningly at Eva become as laughable as they are unnerving; background extras' conspiring gossip seems overdone. It's again too lazy to defend these as denoting Eva's subjective state; and in any case, that we get to know so badly little about her as a character makes the sour taste the film leaves all the more unaffecting.

One scene seems meant to counter the unequivocal one-dimensionality of people's responses to Eva: that in which she is greeted by one of Kevin's victims, now in a wheelchair (if he wasn't already; we're never told and he's in no other scene). Unnerving Eva with his unexpected hospitality, the victim seems perfunctory as a character, his inclusion and incongruous friendliness betraying further superficiality in the filmmakers' approach to a story dealing with inexpressible personal tragedy.