We Need To Talk About Kevin

After almost a decade of silence, Scottish director Lynne Ramsay is back with a bang with an exquisitely realised adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s bestselling novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, the story of a mother who must clean up the dreadful mess left behind when her psychopathic son commits mass murder at his school.

The film opens with a long overture as Eva (Tilda Swinton, superb) is hoisted aloft among a writhing mass of bodies at the Tomatina festival in Spain. The screen fills with red (the colour Ramsay uses throughout as a touchstone), a chill foreshadowing the bloody events to come. Free-spirited Eva has travelled the world as a writer, a career that comes to a stop when she meets the faintly gormless Franklin (John C Reilly) and settles down in New York. They marry and shortly afterwards, she gives birth to Kevin. A fussy, noisy baby, Kevin cannot settle in the city so the family move to the suburbs. It doesn’t help. Eva cannot connect with Kevin (brilliantly played as a malevolent imp by Jasper Newell), who seems intent on destroying the house and breaking up the family. 

Kevin is uncontrollable and unteachable. He refuses to be potty trained. He destroys his toys and smears paint on the walls. He seems to have an innate gift for playing his parents off of one another, convincing his oblivious father that everything is fine while openly mocking his despairing mother. Time passes but things do not improve. At the age of fifteen (and now played by Ezra Miller), Kevin is an intelligent young man but he is isolated from his peers and sneeringly cynical. He spends his days online, alone in his unnervingly neat bedroom. One unexceptional morning, he leaves the house, never to return.

This is not a film about a school shooting, not really. We are never witness to precisely what Kevin does; Ramsay distils Shriver’s wordy novel to shift focus onto the consequences of his actions for his family, Eva in particular. WNTTAK is a film about blood, the blood bond between mother and son, the blood he spills through his actions, the blood that still runs through Eva's dreams. Vilified by the community, she must live out the rest of her days in purgatory. She will always be the mother of the boy that massacred his classmates, somehow just as culpable as if she had committed the crime herself. How can she carry on? Was Kevin just a bad seed, a statistical anomaly, or did Eva have a hand in making him into a monster

As Ramsay switches back and forth in time, Eva endlessly replays the story of Kevin’s life, haunted by her own conscience as she continues to question and doubt herself, her marriage and her future. The director never settles the question, leaving it to Swinton’s extraordinary face to fill in the blanks in what is an exceptionally intimate and brittle performance, present in almost every scene and actively filtering her own tortured conscience. The film’s other great strength is Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey’s beautiful photography; delicately composed, strikingly severe and washed again and again in tones of crimson red.

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