We Need to Talk About Kevin
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly
Running Time: 112 minutes
By Nicholas Maltby
We Need to Talk About Kevin is, for the most part, an excruciating film to watch. It’s also an exquisite cinematic production that vivifies Lionel Shriver’s story of the same name, to the extent that it seems like a non-fiction narrative. Shriver’s book is partly a fictionalized response to the Columbine massacre of 1999.
Set in 2000, the novel recounts the growth of Kevin Khatchadourian – from newborn baby to adolescent murderer. The film doesn’t deviate from the book’s plot, but the imaginative direction of Lynne Ramsay and visual inventiveness of Director of Photography Seamus McGarvey ensure the movie offers something beyond Shriver’s original creation.
From the opening shots of Tilda Swinton (who plays Kevin’s mother, Eva) alternately splashing in the tomato pulp of the Spanish festival Tomatina and coasting on the hands of fellow revellers, we delve into an image-rich psychological investigation. Eva awakes to find the red of her dream transposed as paint splodges onto the front of her vandalized house. We all use dreams to digest reality. Most of us have experienced tragedies – major or minor – that blur divisions between conscious and unconscious thought. Not many of us, however, have our nightmares realized in the same way as Eva’s. Her son (played by a series of extraordinary actors) has killed nine of his school peers. Kevin does this with the expertise and casual execution of a parent putting his/her sleepy children to bed. In the fallout from the killings, Eva is vilified by her community. The early stages of the film follow her seemingly unsustainable attempts to retrieve a life from the wreckage of Kevin’s actions.
For all its technical mastery, We Need to Talk About Kevin’s finest achievement is that it avoids moralizing. Kevin is not depicted as evil. Sure, he behaves appallingly long before he murders; but he’s not evil. Deeply disturbed, and difficult to comprehend, but not to be corralled into a box of stereotypes. The motives for his behaviour are less easily discovered, and only gently suggested by Ramsay. Her film offers rigorous psychological exploration, but without any intrusive judgement.