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At the Cinema: We Need to Talk about Kevin

Lionel Shriver's novel has been turned into an immaculate film by Lynne Ramsay—at times too immaculate for Ian Jack ...

Is it nature or nurture? Or, as the question for book groups at the end of Lionel Shriver’s novel has it, “Was Kevin just born wicked, or is his cold heart the inevitable consequence of an unaffectionate mother?” The novel, “We Need to Talk About Kevin”, never answers the question. That’s its compulsion. Kevin’s mother is the narrator and everything we get to know is from her point of view as, in a series of letters to her absent husband, she frets over the origins of their son’s monstrousness. But how reliable is her account? Is she being too easy on herself or too hard? It may be that certain kinds of behaviour—in this case, Kevin’s inexplicable murder spree at his American high school—defy the cause-and-effect reasoning of child-rearing manuals. The word “evil” may just have to do. 

Lynne Ramsay’s film is as faithful as probably any adaptation could be to the novel’s ambiguity and, also like the novel, it tells the story retrospectively. The opening sequence shows crowds revelling in what looks like blood, dripping in it, almost swimming in it, until certain seedy and pulpy textures in the red mess give us a hint of salad and sauces. No explanation is offered, but this in fact is documentary footage of La Tomatina, the Spanish tomato festival, standing in for a nightmare. When Kevin’s mother Eva (Tilda Swinton, pictured) wakes up we find her in a shabby little house somewhere in the outer suburbs of New York. There’s still no escaping the colour of blood. Vengeful neighbours have smeared red paint across her walls and her car. Again and again, we see her trying to sponge, rub and chip it off; Lady Macbeth had a similar preoccupation with hand washing. 

No marks for spotting the symbolism. Eva is being made to atone for the bloody sins of her son, who now languishes sullenly in prison while she tries to cope with her unrelieved loneliness, oppressive guilt and the hatred of the bereaved. Kevin has killed 11 people who did him no harm. She, who may well have done, is not among his victims. Flashbacks, if the word can be applied to a film so fidgety and initially confusing in its tenses, recount Kevin’s life from the moment of his conception. A man and woman briefly couple and spermatozoa swim towards their destination while a flashing bedside clock counts the seconds: this is the method and time it took to produce Mahatma Gandhi on the one hand or Josef Stalin on the other—and all it takes for Kevin to come into the world and somehow take against it. 

Tilda Swinton is entirely persuasive as a travel writer who chafes against the restrictions of motherhood, her characterisation helped by a whippet physique that’s the opposite of maternal amplitude. John C. Reilly is good, too, as the well-meaning and unperceptive husband who thinks Kevin is just fine—shucks, after all he’s just a typical boy! Kevin himself emerges as beautiful as a butterfly from the ugly chrysalis of his obstinate, disobedient childhood: you want to hit him, his mother does. Ezra Miller, who plays his final incarnation as a teenager, gives a wonderful portrait of unreachable malignity, in which the insufferable attitudes (as well as the charm) of your average 15-year-old boy are magnified a thousand times.  

Image by image, this is an immaculate film. At times a little too immaculate, a little too self-conscious in its art: when Swinton, avoiding an encounter in a supermarket, takes shelter against a splendid backdrop of red soup cans she might be posing for a portrait by Norman Rockwell (“American Housewife, 1959”). The soundtrack takes a keen interest in everyday noise—lawn sprinklers, windscreen wipers, photocopiers—and then intersperses it with sweet (sometimes sickly) ballads sung by, among others, Lonnie Donegan and Buddy Holly. The purpose isn’t clear. Irony, like Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again” when the nuclear bombs go off at the end of “Dr Strangelove”? Or is it, perhaps, a protest against the old sentimentalisations of childhood?

Endearing though it is to hear Donegan yodel his way through “Nobody’s Child”, the music rubs against the grain, adding a rustic wail and squawk to a film that is otherwise beautifully judged. How easy it would have been to have taken Shriver’s novel and shifted the emphasis from the mystery to the violence, and yet the cruellest act we witness in Ramsay’s film is a mother losing her temper with her child and unintentionally breaking his arm. The real blood-letting happens out of shot.  

The visual absence of the massacre is a mercy. In its place we have the film’s true concern, which is that fear of the unknown (and the unknowable) among women when they give birth to children of the rival sex. Kevin, as bad as bad could be, takes a common parental question—why is our son a stranger to us?—and writes it memorably large.  

Source: The Economist
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