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We Need to Talk About Kevin. 2011. Directed by Lynne Ramsay. Screenplay by Rory Stewart Kinnear & Lynne Ramsay; based on the novel of the same name by Lion Shriver.
Starring Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly, Jasper Newell, Ashley Gerasimovich, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Alex Manette, James Chen and Lauren Fox. BBC Films/UK Film Council/Independent.
Rated R. 112 minutes.
Director Lynne Ramsay has done a couple very interesting films thus far. Her debut feature Ratcatcher is a bleak but important bit of cinema. Her follow-up feature, Morvern Callar, is a beautiful, elegant and atmospheric film with a solid performance from Samantha Norton. Ramsay’s style is at times gritty and realistic, which lends itself excellently to We Need to Talk About Kevin, and others it can take on the quality of dreams, again giving power to her latest work.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is not just powerful filmmaking. It is also incredibly powerful storytelling and writing in general. The novel tackled a viciously sensitive subject in the United States. Five years later, we still hear of school shootings, or mass shootings in general every few weeks, if that. The specter of Columbine will always loom over the U.S. no matter if there was never another shooting at a school again. But the fact it’s become too commonplace in the States is just another sensitive point in this dark tale. However, it isn’t simply the violence which Ramsay focuses on in her film, it is the lead up to the violent act which Kevin commits that takes center stage. Watching this film is a way of understanding the other side, the families of those who commit atrocious acts, and Ramsay dives to the heart of doubt, guilt, and self-hatred with the help of one of the greatest actors of our time, Tilda Swinton, as well as the enormous talent of young Ezra Miller.
Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) has seen better days. Long after the incident which marred her life for eternity, she struggles to find work. She used to be a great travel writer, a cushy job and lots of security. But after her troubled son Kevin (Ezra Miller) murdered and permanently injured many people at his high school, life is a bit rough. Her and former husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) no longer love one another, which really started to happen even before the killing, but ever since Kevin’s hideous acts their relationship is worse.
As Eva struggles to try and make it through her immediate future, we watch the flashbacks of her life, including even the ones she might not want us to witness. We see how Kevin grew into what he became, the monster which walked into that high school and killed people, but more than that we discover why Eva is almost determined to take the abuse thrown at her by strangers, grieving fathers and mothers in the streets. The guilt she feels is due to her relationship with Kevin.
But can we really blame Eva, no matter what she did, for Kevin’s actions?
This film presents us with a moral dilemma. Now, there’s never a point where I once thought Eva should be held responsible for her son’s murderous nature. At the same time, though, we still find ourselves questioning her parenting skills. One of the most interesting scenes, or more so a set of scenes which parallel one another, is when Eva gives birth. The two scenes are juxtaposed at different points in time, but if we remember them together it’s intriguing. First, when Eva has Kevin not only do we witness the pain and struggle she went through during labour, we further see the distant and detached look on her face afterwards, as if Eva knew she were giving birth to a child that would cause her more torment over the years. Later on, after Eva gives birth to her little girl when Kevin is about six-years-old, the mother is happy, holding her child and showering the newborn baby with affection. I find these two scenes amazing in what they suggest. Not that you’ll find it hard to understand all those sentiments in other portions of the film. Almost every scene is weighted down with significance.
A theme I loved here is that of washing blood off of one’s hands, which we see physically represented at various points throughout the film. Such as in the first scene where we’re introduced to the present day Eva; her house and car are covered in red paint, obviously thrown by angry people either connected to the shooting by relation to victims or just people from town who scapegoat her as the mother of a killer. Afterwards, Eva tries to sandblast the paint off her siding, effectively washing the blood off her entire home. Another scene later sees Eva washing a blood-like substance of her hands into the sink, an even better image of her in the vein of Lady Macbeth, only she had no part in Kevin’s murders. She only thinks she did, as a supposedly bad mother. Yet what the whole angle of Eva’s being a good or bad mother presents is this: can we sometimes, in rare cases, actually blame the child for a mother, or father, being hard, uncaring, et cetera? It’s almost as if Kevin pushed her into being the mother she was, bringing on all her anger and loathing. We see both sides, and in the end are left to judge exactly what we feel. Near the end there’s a moment when Eva hugs her son close, perhaps the first time since he was a tiny infant unable to push her away, and you can feel that she does love him. It’s simply that Kevin, from day one as a screeching baby, has made it a tough thing to do.
Both Miller and Swinton give terrific, out-of-the-park performances as troubled son and withered mother. On top of the atmosphere Ramsay conjures up with gorgeous, darkly framed scenes and plenty of intensely raw close-ups, these two actors propel We Need to Talk About Kevin towards near masterpiece. A definite 4.5 out of 5 star film. Each time I see it there is a new disturbing feeling with which I walk away, every time there is something else to catch my eye, and catch the words in my throat to describe how I feel. Swinton is the centerpiece of this wonderful movie and carries much of it on her shoulders alone, even in those silent moments where all we get is her face, her eyes. Although, you can’t forget about Miller either, whose star only rises further and further with each film he takes on. All the elements of Ramsay’s film come together to leave a stone in your gut, in your heart. If you can handle the morbidity, I definitely suggest this as a movie for a rainy afternoon, a dark night, or any time you can handle its at times tough to digest themes.