We Need To Talk About Kevin
Directed By: Lynne Ramsey
Written By: Lynne Ramsey and Rory Kinnear, based on the novel by Lionel Shriver
Starring: Tilda Swinton, John C. Riley, Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell, Rock Duer, and Ashley Gerasimovich
Director of Photography: Seamus McGarvey, Editor: Joe Bini, Production Designer: Judy Becker, Original Music: Jonny Greenwood
Rated: R for disturbing violence and a bit of sexuality.
Thrown against the screen like paint against a canvas by Jackson Pollock, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a pop art explosion of subjective destruction. Nothing is subtle in Lynne Ramsey’s first film in almost a decade, its bold colors captured on screen without finesse and layered with abstract compositions that clash against each other like runaway trains. Ms. Ramsey’s film feels more indebted to the work of Tony Scott and Michael Bay than any art house, which may drive some out of the theaters, but its all centered around her extremely sly and brash narrative, focusing on a mother and her very troubled little son.
Adapted by Ms. Ramsey and Rory Kinnear from the novel by Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin follows a mother in the wake of a high school killing spree. But she’s not the mother of one of the slain children; her son is the killer. It’s tricky and what could be banal melodramatic material for a film, but Ms. Ramsey, whose previous films include Ratcatcher and Monvern Caller, is not one to play things simple. Ms. Shriver’s novel is a series of letters to her husband following the tragedy, and Ms. Ramsey abandons all similarity to a film that makes it the subjective experience of a mind that has been fragmented and shattered.
Such an experimental work though needs an anchor to bring us in, and Ms. Ramsey finds it in the shattered face of Tilda Swinton, who continues her streak as a muse for European artists. If the film’s broken structure resembles Pollock, then Ms. Swinton’s face here acts as a Rembrandt. The narrative jumps throughout the life of Eva, from the fallout of her own life after the accident, and all through Kevin’s young life as she searches for the answer why. The question is essentially a chicken and egg question of whether she’s responsible, or if her son Kevin is simply the result of a Rosemary’s Baby-like inevitability. When he constantly cries around Eva as a child, is it a sign that he will always be cruel to her, or is it the fact she must bring him near jackhammer construction in order to feel release a sign? Is a lie she tells her husband (John C Riley) about hurting Kevin his final straw? Or perhaps the fact her husband encourages archery as a hobby for Kevin is perhaps a big sign.
We Need To Talk About Kevin eventually flows more nicely into a few narrative strings that tie the film together, but dialogue is minimal and the artistry of each shot continues to play out. Splashes of blood red cover the world of Ms. Ramsey’s palette, wondrously shot by DP Seamus McGarvery and edited together by Joe Bini, from the paint someone threw against her home to a series of cans of tomato soup she hides against. These abstract shots—off centered, out of focus, and without any sense of internal continuity—bring us right into the mind of Eva and her brutally tortured soul (and each could easily be framed in a museum). Eva searches for an explanation, but it becomes quite obvious that there are no answers for the explanation. Late in the film, Kevin tells us, “I think I used to know, but now I’m not so sure.”
But We Need to Talk About Kevin gives us plenty to think about after it delivers scene after scene of complexity in how Eva approaches her motherly duties. The film’s second shot is a bold and beautiful top down landscape of a young Eva fighting in the tomato war in Spain, reaching an almost orgasmic face of happiness. Is this the essential birth of Kevin? In chaos, in disdain for order? Or is Kevin created in order to destroy Eva’s life from the inside?
Often though, Kevin can be devilishly funny in a horrific way. Using both a score by Jonny Greenwood and an American 1950s pop songs, Ms. Ramsey delights herself in her sadistic little jokes, often satirizing the drama (when two Mormons ask Eva where she will spend the afterlife, she calmly responds, “Oh yes! I’m going straight to hell”). A lot of the comedy comes from the performances of the three young boys playing Kevin, most notably Ezra Miller as the teenager. Mr. Miller is a nuanced performer who takes big scenes and chews them up, while providing small details that flesh his character into something that cannot be explained easily.
Ms. Shriver’s book was written in the wake of Columbine as a thoughtful approach of a woman who analyzes every detail of both her and her son’s life as a search for answers. While the narrative search remains the same in Ms. Ramsey’s work, the impressionistic and vital saturation of We Need to Talk About Kevin transforms it from a careful examination of a touchy subject to a brash bold cinematic outpouring that takes minimal sympathy for its characters in a way that floors you from the first moment by bringing you inside the mind of a destructive force. Not one that destroys the young children at a high school, but the one that refuses to stop a force that will.