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We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

By Carolyn Lake.

The much anticipated adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s award-winning novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, has become one of this year’s must-see films. Director and co-writer Lynne Ramsay has created a sensory feast that leaves you feeling ill, as it should. Tilda Swinton does a truly exceptional job of playing Eva, the trauma-stricken mother at the centre of the story. We meet Eva as a young woman amid a sea of bodies and squashed red tomatoes at the annual festival in Spain, enjoying a carefree life with partner Frank, played by John C. Reilly. Jump forward and we meet Eva again, much older and lacking all the lustre of her earlier self, waking up to a red glow shining through her windows (a colour and a symbolic presence that will recur throughout the film). Her home and car have been vandalised, splashed with paint at some during the night. Her first child, Kevin (played as a teenager by Ezra Miller), has done something terrible, the consequences of which she now faces daily. As Eva tells two Jehovah’s Witnesses who happen upon her door, she knows exactly where she’s going in the afterlife, and it’s straight to hell. Through a series of flashbacks we’re slowly shown how Eva turned from a free-spirited bohemian to a near-affectless, pill-popping, socially exiled shell of her former self, as she tries to figure out where it all went wrong. We meet Kevin as a baby and watch Eva struggle to bond with him as he displays increasingly sociopathic behaviours. Frank, however, develops a much better relationship with his son, and we’re left to question the reliability of Eva’s point of view.  Their second child, Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich), is sweet and giving, presenting Frank and Eva with none of the problems brought about by Kevin.

Ramsay and co-writer Rory Kinnear’s fractured, non-linear narrative works perfectly to tell this story of mass-trauma and its aftermath. In the original novel, the narrative is composed solely of letters written by Eva to her husband, and it’s this narrative form that made the rather familiar plot-line into something hauntingly marvellous. That Ramsay really utilised her medium to tell this story makes the film truly an artistic product in its own right. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is exquisite, which with the film’s also superb use of sound creates an almost claustrophobic, and certainly unnerving experience. As mentioned previously, the film uses colour to draw continuity between the fragmented narratives and to signify the horror which constantly underlies the story. In hindsight and with analysis, the use of symbolism is arguably heavy-handed as you think back and clock its repetitions, but the film engenders such a visceral and embodied engagement, that such critique can only be an afterthought.

That Kevin is represented to be so very evil at an early age does, however, occasionally come across as heavy-handed. While the earlier scenes are presented as flashbacks from Eva’s point of view, and are thus arguably her subjective memories, without a Fight Club-esque plot twist the power of the image ultimately wins in stamping out what could have been a more interesting ambiguity. We Need to Talk About Kevin is, nevertheless, a fine example of filmmaking and will no doubt become a standout film in Swinton’s career.

Carolyn Lake is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.

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Read also Christopher Sharrett, “‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’ or The Devil is a Woman” Matthew Sorrento, “Subjective to Eva, Subjected to Kevin”.

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