This film desperately wants to be talked about. With great effort, We Need to Talk about Kevin presents itself as, in the words of 19th century critic Matthew Arnold, a work of high seriousness, to pitch a personal hard-sell as high art. This claim is more valid in the form than content; the former is a non-linear structure more challenging than its worth. The film’s elaborate dressing covers an updated, standard take on the crazy-baby horror subgenre, from The Bad Seed down to The Orphan. Adapting Lionel Shriver’s novel of the same name, Lynne Ramsay must like the strong subjective moments of Rosemary’s Baby. She’s so impressed that she stumbles through a surreal revision. The tradition plays on the ambivalence of childbirth (at once joyful and terrifying) with the guilt inherent to such responsibility. The fear doubles with the knowledge, from both psychology and the tabloids, that a baby crying non-stop has driven mothers to the edge.
Baby Kevin’s constant wailing – he grows from birth to his teen years in the film – is the central moment, even if the film asserts differently. Eva (Tilda Swinton) lifts her distressed baby, forcing a maternal smile to channel happiness. Cut to her attempting a walk, the baby in a carriage, as passersby incriminate. She wheels Kevin near a jackhammer, trying to drown out his crying, though it miraculously rises above the clatter. The touch of humor here fleets away from Eva’s oppressive guilt. Eventually, it results in her residing in a red-stained bungalow, a virtual universe away from the posh McMansion she purchases earlier with her husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly), to nest for baby.
With her hop-about structure, Ramsay aims to highlight the dizzying turn of events. The film begins with (and returns to, needlessly) Eva at La Tomatina Festival in Buñol, where she crowd-surfs amidst the tomato-throwing and, putatively, soaks up youth and lifeblood, though the red is telltale. Like the punk-rock past behind Cate Blanchett’s new life in Notes on a Scandal, Eva’s lot has left her compromised, her new duty consuming her (as Swinton’s character has experienced in Michael Clayton). The conflicting elements of vitality and parental oppression leave her numb, highlighted in her low-level employment at a travel agency, begun around when she takes the bungalow, alone. Meanwhile in the narrative (but, naturally, not in the plot), Kevin grows, retaining his diaper way too long, and filling it on a whim, to spite mother – his reason for existence, which happens in a brainstorm of unlikely ways. Essentially, the character has no other purpose than to terrorize mother, while dad remains oddly clueless. Kevin is an element of nightmare, so much that I’d argue he doesn’t even exist (outside mother’s nightmares) beyond his baby state. This point explains why the eponymous pseudo-character has no friends, no life besides home and, overall, remains a contraption.
Essentially, baby Kevin’s continual cries, met with mother’s guilt, distress, and anger, create this near-film-long nightmare, part sheer terror of raising this human monster, part aftermath to his assumed power/destruction. The approach is much like Barton Fink’s, should you buy the argument that the title character’s life, once he arrives to Hollywood, is a night terror. Eva’s guilt swells in that she couldn’t stop teen Kevin, and hence we note Ramsay’s unsuccessful attempt at sympathetic horror. We wonder why she wouldn’t move further away after the fall, and not submit herself to reckonings on the street and vandalism to her home. But then again, in actual nightmares, fear extends beyond time and place. This point explains why Eva would eat an omelette made of eggs she had smashed while escaping someone in the market. Highlighting the eerie sensations of terror-sleep, her crunch of the shells recalls the following: 1) Freud’s dream symbol of teeth shattering while still in the skull; 2) the tomatoes tossed and smashed in Eva’s reverie; 3) Kevin’s pulling out fingernail pieces from his arm, after he’d consumed himself. At this point in the plot (take note), Eva moves to her child, now giving the comfort that she couldn’t when he was an infant.
The move feels like sleeptime indigestion finally cooling off.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J. His book, The New American Crime Filmis forthcoming with McFarland.
Read also Christopher Sharrett, “‘We Need to Talk about Kevin’ or The Devil is a Woman” and Carolyn Lake’s review of the film here.