Sit down and be silent, because we need to talk about Kevin, something most people have been doing since the films debut.
Lynne Ramsays’ cinematic interpretation of Lionel Shrivers novel sizzled when it emerged in cinemas in 2011. Stark, bleak and unsettling, ‘We Need to talk about Kevin’ is the story of Eva Khatchadourian (the ever androgynous , astonishing Tilda Swinton), an independent, intelligent travel writer who soon settles into marriage and motherhood, whilst struggling to develop a functioning relationship with her unusual son, the titular character Kevin (mesmerizing newcomer Ezra Miller).
Kevin grows from a moody, bossy and sombre child into a sinister, introspective and highly aware young man; perpetually unhappy and bored. He enjoys playing his parents against one another, relishing the slow demolition of the family unit. He sadistically taunts his sister, savages the family guinea pig and projects a sunny yet sullen disposition to the outside world.
The culmination of Kevin’s erratic and unexplained behaviour climaxes with the massacre of his class mates with a bow and arrow. To Kevin’s ears, the screams of his peers merge eerily into the ecstasy of approving applause. The story, a weaving of past and present, unravels Eva’s past life of freedom and pleasure, kissing in the rain and travelling, the mundane hell of her personal experience of motherhood and the devastation and ruin caused by Kevin’s actions, as he steals from Eva her dream or illusion of family and the sacrifices she made, exchanging her past life of independence for one of motherhood.
As I haven’t read the book, the film roused many questions in me. What is Kevin’s motivation? As Eva asks him why, Kevin can only respond, ‘I used to think I knew’. Is the problem something innate within Kevin? Was he born with psychotic, even sociopathic, narcissistic, sadistic tendencies? Did he pick up on Eva’s lack of true love, claiming the only honest act she ever committed to him was breaking his arm? Was her lack of love the reason for his cold, harsh decision? Was the issue Franklins inability to acknowledge Kevin’s issues? Kevin is frequently described as uncomfortable, pointless, weird, something that his mother is ‘used to’ and harsh. Despite the emotional disconnect between Eva and Kevin, there is a clear connection; something that binds the two.
Everything Kevin does seem to serve as a punishment to his mother, perhaps an attempt to rouse a feeling of love or of hatred, but not of indifference and not of illusion. Eva tries to love Kevin and plays at loving him, but at least in the early years, she doesn’t and Kevin seems to sense this. The film is an interesting look at nature vs. nature. Are we born what we are, or do our environments condition us into being what we become? Kevin’s antagonistic dislike towards his mother and the usury, superficial relationship he shares with his father and sister are difficult to fully define and the film maddeningly refuses to explain why Kevin is the way he is, merely relishing the fact that Kevin represents the disillusionment of the family unit, the American dream, the potential of youth and the natural bond between mother and son. The film explores the child as a separate, wilful entity of the parents that has the potential to either elevate or devastate the parents’ expectations.
Contrary to many reviewers, I did not see Eva as a bad mother, merely a struggling one who was perhaps astounded herself by her lack of true maternal warmth. Despite this, she eagerly tries with Kevin but he thwarts her at every turn. Interestingly the only respite she receives from his caterwauling is the grating sound of road works.
Eva and Kevin are mirrors of one another. If Eva is acting at being a loving mother, then Kevin is acting at being a loving son with Franklin, and acting in the gymnasium when he slaughters his fellow students. Everything with Kevin is a veneer, a facade, reflected in his mother; actions that he hopes will inspire some feeling, but never do.
The film itself was slow to unravel but a fascinating portrait of a family falling away, tearing at the seams and an interesting insight into the difficulties faced by mothers in producing and raising healthy, functioning children. This is a film that focuses on silences, on what is unsaid and unknown, on symbols, alludes and colours, particularly the colour red, the most natural of colours, representing the blood of menstruation, of birth, of life ebbing away and finally, of murder and used throughout the film as Eva hides behind tomato soup, participates in a tomato festival, paints her lips red, drinks red wine and feeds Kevin jam sandwiches. It’s the colour of love, passion, rage, never quite freely expressed in this film, even in Kevin’s final acts.
Eva and Kevin are both pretenders, but despite intriguing me, I couldn’t push past the surface and gloss of this film. I couldn’t understand Kevin, I couldn’t pierce his veneer, and I wanted to turn his head inside out and pour the contents onto the table.
I wouldn’t recommend to expectant mothers, but to all else, ‘We need to talk about Kevin’ is well worth a watch. In a world where children are perceived as innocent, angelic beings, this film makes us reconsider and ask the question ‘who is to blame, who is responsible if a child ends up like Kevin?’
Perhaps the most insightful quote of all into Kevin’s mindset is the following:
“It’s like this: you wake and watch TV, get in your car and listen to the radio you go to your little jobs or little school, but you don’t hear about that on the 6 o’clock news, why? ‘Cause nothing is really happening, and you go home and watch some more TV and maybe it’s a fun night and you go out and watch a movie. I mean it’s got so bad that half the people on TV, inside the TV, they’re watching TV. What are these people watching, people like me?”
Perhaps then what Kevin craves is notoriety, fame – supposedly children deprived of loving family units find the love they crave in the deceptive glare of renown. Basking in the afterglow of his murders, Kevin seems to feel for a moment, recognised. The reaction of bile and horror is honest, more honest than Eva’s repressed barely veiled desperation and dislike. Even at the end, Eva embraces her son and confides that she loves him, but does she, or does she only love the husk of family that has been left to her? I think audiences will be talking about this one for some time to come.