Originally published in the Brandeis University Justice
March 13, 2012
The characters in We Need to Talk About Kevin should have followed just that advice. Maybe then Kevin Khatchadourian (Ezra Miller) wouldn’t have gone and done … well, whatever terrible thing he did. The film doesn’t exactly let the audience know until its very end. The question of whether Kevin could have been stopped illustrates the larger nature vs. nurture argument that forms the core of the film.
Director and screenwriter Lynne Ramsay, along with screenwriter Rory Kinnear, adapted We Need to Talk About Kevin from Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel of the same name.
Ramsay is an experimental filmmaker. She has only directed two feature films previously—2002’s Morvern Callar and 1999’s Ratcatcher, both of which received some critical acclaim but didn’t make much of a stir, probably due to their odd subject material and unorthodox style.
We Need to Talk About Kevin follows a similar pattern, but boasts one major difference: Tilda Swinton. Swinton is a beloved Scottish character actor who, despite her lack of name recognition and androgynous, alien-like features, continues to pop up in some of the most captivating films of the past two decades.
Swinton plays Eva Khatchadourian, Kevin’s beleaguered mother. From infancy, she and her child never really bonded. As a baby, Kevin would cry constantly, and despite Eva’s efforts, only his father, Franklin (John C. Reilly), could soothe him. Kevin is filmed out of sequence, showing three different times in the Khatchadourians’ lives: Eva and Franklin’s courtship up through Kevin’s childhood; his time in high school; and P.D., or Post-Disaster, of which he was apparently the cause.
When I think back over the film, I mostly remember red. Kevin opens with a shot of Swinton and others bathing, dancing and convulsing in a thick red liquid. Is it blood? Not literally. The liquid is tomato juice, and Swinton is at some sort of European tomato-flinging festival. Other red-tinted shots crop up continuously: rain beating against red stained glass; Eva standing in front of a display of red soup cans; both Eva and Kevin in red clothing; and in a pivotal scene in the high school’s gym, red floor and wall mats that border the room like foreboding sentries.
All of this symbolism can get a bit heavy-handed. But it certainly gives the film a tone, which is necessary, as it doesn’t have a whole lot of plot. Mostly we see scenes depicting Eva and Kevin’s subtle struggle for dominance. By the time Kevin turns six, Eva has begun to resent him, and once her son has entered high school, mother and son silently detest each other. Franklin is infuriatingly blind to the civil war going on in his family, though what little he does understand he blames on Eva. After all, Kevin is just a child. How could he harbor such malice?
The audience, however, sees Kevin acting out. Not in normal innocent ways, but in cruel deeds meant to hurt Eva. He destroys her artwork and intentionally refuses to use the toilet long after it’s become inappropriate to wear diapers. His character is irritating and a little scary.
As he edges toward adulthood, his actions grow more sinister. Franklin and Eva’s relationship also begins to fall apart as a rift named Kevin grows between them. At one point, they discuss divorce, and Kevin overhears. Trying to reassure his son, Franklin explains, “It’s easy to misunderstand something when you hear it out of context.” Kevin icily responds, “Why would I not understand the context? I am the context.”
Miller does a good job as Kevin, though ultimately his character is meant to remain enigmatic, and Miller’s dead eyes and sneering expression is as much as we’re ever going to know about what’s going on inside his head. It is Swinton, instead, who lets the viewers in on what’s going on in the minds of the characters. The aggressive stares and overt whispers of her neighbors, her own mind’s betrayal, the grief at what her life has become: all of it plays across Swinton’s thin, pale face like a slap ricocheting across her fine features.
We’ve all heard about the early signs of psychosis: bed wetting, harming animals, anti-social behavior. Kevin has some, but not all of the symptoms. Could Eva and Franklin have known how far their son’s anger would take him? More importantly, did they create it? Kevin never gives a definitive answer, instead forcing the audience to question what’s really the cause of his behavior. Was he born that way? Or is Eva the real monster hiding in the closet?