We Need To Talk About Kevin

We Need To Talk About Kevin

*****

Reviewed by: Sophie Monks Kaufman

London Film Festival best picture winner We Need To Talk About Kevin is adapted from a best-selling novel by Lionel Shriver, which has garnered legions of morbidly fascinated followers since publication eight years ago. This immensely disturbing tale is the closest immensely disturbing tales come to being mainstream classics.

The film opens to show Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) living by herself in a ramshackle house in small-town America. She is persona non grata in her local community. Not of the variety that is simply shunned and whispered about – although that must come free – but the type who inspires acts of violence. Leaving the house comes with the risk of being hit in the street while hiding inside does not guarantee sanctity. In an early scene Eva wakes to find house and car doused in red paint. Why is this happening to her and why does she take it with the quietude of a self-mortifying monk?

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The film unravels this mystery through a series of flashbacks that progress the story of a once happy New Yorker alongside real-time scenes of Eva knitting together the bare bones of a solitary life. The instances of abuse she receives from members of the community are the richest experiences she has. There is nothing in her present.

The daily agenda goes something like: wake up on the sofa beside the debris of last night’s dinner; stare blindly into space; drive to work while staring blindly into space, somehow also steering the car; quietly work; get perved on by the office creep; drive home repeating the miracle of blind staring while not causing an accident; prepare a sad little meal; neck back red wine, stare blindly in to space until collapse; experience a sleep saturated by symbolic dreams. Then repeat.

It’s hard to overstate just how horrifically grim Eva’s life is and it is testament to the haunting power of Swinton’s eyes that she doesn’t need to say a thing for you to know the extent of her suffering. If you’ve read the book and know what’s coming, it is possible to look at Swinton in every scene and see the weight of the whole story carried in each stilted movement. But if you haven’t read the book or the deluge of spoiler-filled reviews or the film’s IMDB page, you will be wondering…

WHAT HAPPENED? AND WHERE IS THE FAMILY WE SAW IN THE FLASHBACKS?

It is giving nothing away, as the clue’s in the name, to say that Eva’s firstborn of two, her son Kevin, has a part to play in the mysterious horror the film is headed towards. But it’s not just Kevin in isloation; it’s the unpalatable relationship between Eva and her son. Even before baby Kevin, with his infinite capacity for screaming, enters her life, Eva is aghast by him, staring at her baby bump in the mirror with horror and confusion. His birth does not alchemise these feelings into gooey maternal love. She feels how a person would feel if a dependent house guest were to rock up and demand round-the-clock care but with the added burden of knowing how off-message this is when the guest is the fruit of your loins.

Whether Eva’s lack of affection for her son is responsible for the insane monster he becomes is a matter for individual interpretation. What is objectively true is that from day one he makes the kid from The Omen look reasonable. At least Damien had the excuse of being possessed by the devil. Kevin is possessed by - not evil, that Daily Mail construct but - nihilism, malice, a desire to channel the entirety of his considerable brainpower into disturbing his mother. This might be laughable in your average, waddling toddler but Kevin is unnervingly perceptive and has irony on lockdown by the age of two. Where Ramsay found child actors that look as sweet as Jaspar Newell and Rock Duer but possess the mocking menace of Alan Rickman on a bad day is anyone’s guess.

The film starts with a carnival of colour and moves slowly and laconically, gathering momentum but still harvesting only the most essential lines from the wordy novel. This is a film strung together by worried looks and malevolent smirks with dialogue only there to scatter enough information to make the final question seem tantalisingly answerable. It is not.

Ezra Miller plays the final Kevin, the teenager who deliberately wears too-tight clothes accentuating his cool, physical arrogance. The dynamic between him and Swinton is claustrophobically intimate. For all their mutual dislike, they see each other with absolute clarity, unlike Franklin (John C Reilly), the well-meaning but blind dad, and Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich), the sweet-natured second child.

This is a heart-breaking film in so many ways. No character escapes unpunished and no character is entirely without human qualities. Ezra Miller has advised audiences to remember that Kevin is hyper-aware and knows exactly how his behaviour comes across to his agog mother - whose point of view is our lens to the story. The central issue of blame is so slippery it’s tempting to just decide the Khatchadourian house was built on an old Indian burial ground. In the masterful final scene, Ramsay manages the impressive feat of turning 110 minutes of characterisation on its head to remind the audience that, despite everything, Kevin is still a child.

This is Lynne Ramsay's third film and one that arrives nine years after Movern Callar. Starring Samantha Morton, as a woman who puts her name to the novel left behind by her boyfriend after he commits suicide, Movern Callar also makes sparse use of dialogue but frustratingly fails to deliver many clues about its protagonist's internal world.

Perhaps it is due to the master-casting of Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller, who seem to have inhaled then embodied the characters written by Shriver, but depth is not a problem here. Watching them walking around, as a fan of the book, is akin to Geppetto discovering that Pinocchio is a real boy. However, to draw a line between who these characters are and what the film means is to stare into the abyss. As Kevin drawls after one more destructive act: “The point is there is no point.”

What is worth scrutinising is Ramsay’s lesson in how to deliver a film adaptation. Shriver's story unfolds by a series of letters from Eva to Franklin and - as many have commented - Ramsay has done an inspirational job of transforming this to a visual feast playing to the unique strengths of cinema. In doing so she has shown up the lack of imagination present in films such as A Dangerous Method where much of the significant content is delivered via voiceover while characters sit in silence penning attractively curlicued words.

For extra atmosphere, Ramsay has added touches that make you laugh, in the same way audiences laughed during the lift scene in Drive, as a way for the excess creepiness to leave your body. Every Day by Buddy Holly used to be a nice little ditty about love. Now, if anyone were to play it to me in a romantic setting, I would promptly lose the ability to speak.

Part of the fascination of Kevin is that everyone has their own interpretation. I reckon this is a horror story in the orbit of The Shining made all the more horrifying for the lack of obvious genre signposts such as ghosts, possession and hallways full of blood. Yes, the key elements of the story are informed by reality. Eva’s lack of attachment for her son could be attributable to post-natal depression and what happens at the end has been known to happen in the world we live in but the linkage of the two events is a narrative construct designed to terrify audiences in the most harrowing possible way.

Reviewed on: 21 Feb 2012
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The much-anticipated film based on Lionel Shriver's Orange Prize-winning novel about a mother at odds with her dangerous son.
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Read more We Need To Talk About Kevin reviews:

Jennie Kermode *****
Katy Carter ****1/2

Director: Lynne Ramsay

Writer: Lynne Ramsay, Rory Stewart Kinnear, based on the novel by Lionel Schriver

Starring: Tilda Swinton, John C Reilly, Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell, Rock Duer, Ashley Gerasimovich

Year: 2011

Runtime: 112 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK, USA


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