When a child dies, it is a tragedy for the parents, an upsetting of the natural order. But when a child kills, is the parent also guilty of the crime? We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lynne Ramsay’s solid, scary film that became the talk of Cannes this weekend, burrows into a mother’s agony as she recalls the 15 years she spent watching her son hone his psychopathic instincts — until, one day at high school, he kills nine of his classmates on a bow-and-arrow murder spree.
At a Festival whose competition entries often occupy a rarefied realm of austere emotions and minimalist visual style, Ramsay does not dodge the pejorative label of genre movie. “I wanted to make a psychological horror film,” she said at her press conference. She probably would not mind if her fellow Scotswoman Tilda Swinton won the Festival’s best actress award. Swinton truly deserves such a citation for her bold and acute inhabiting of Eva Khatchadoruian, a smart career woman and satisfied wife whose child drags her into the abyss of disgrace.
Based on Lionel Shriver’s 2005 novel, the film is set shortly after the killings, when Eva has become a pariah in her middle-class American town, and consists mostly of flashbacks of her life with Kevin. Near the beginning, the aggrieved mother of one of Kevin’s victims spots Eva on the street and punches her hard in the face. Eva casts no blame on her attacker; she herself suffers from a vicarious, perplexed guilt. She feels she must be an accessory to Kevin’s murders because… because a mother is supposed to raise her child, lift him up from the animal state of infancy into a mature understanding of society’s moral codes.
But Kevin possesses a feral cunning at the polar opposite of humanity. From his earliest days — when Eva tries to elicit Baby’s first word by asking, “Can you say ‘mommy’ for me?” and he blurts out a sudden, stubborn, “No!” — she knew he was a handful. In one scene, long after Kevin should have been out of diapers, after she cleaned him, he defiantly pooped again not in an expression of helplessness but as a gesture of contempt.
As he grows from toddler (where he is played by Rock Duer) to a seven- or eight-year-old (Jasper Newell) to 15 (Ezra Miller), Kevin matures only in his skill at manipulating his parents with his sadism, and apparently in hiding his dark side from teachers, doctors and the social service system. The boy may fit some definition of autism or Asperger’s, in that he cannot access an ethical sense that would force shame upon him. But the simpler explanation is that he’s evil, a supremely gifted bad seed, a genius at psychologically torturing his mother, while using his father’s myopic need for male bonding to drive the two apart.
Eva’s husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) is clueless, but hardly blameless. He often takes Kevin’s side against her, apologizing for him or insisting that she apologize. He can’t see what is obvious to the viewer: that Kevin has taken the role of the vicious, domineering parent, and turned Eva into the abused child. Dad should have noticed that, when he and Kevin played a video game, the boy kept shouting, “Die! Die!” Only once does Kevin cozy up to Eva, as she reads him a bedtime story of that master archer Robin Hood. It was probably a mistake for Franklin to buy the boy a bow-and-arrow set.
For her entire career as a feature-filmmaker, Ramsay’s obsessions have stood at the intersection of youth and death. Early in her first feature, Ratcatcher (1999), a boy fails to call for help when his friend is drowning in a canal. At the beginning of her next film, Morvern Callar (2002), a young woman wakes on Christmas morning to find her boy friend dead, having slit his wrists after wrapping her presents. Before Peter Jackson took over The Lovely Bones, Ramsay was scheduled to direct that tale of a murdered 14-year-old girl who speaks to her grieving family from beyond the grave.
The Shriver novel was thus a natural for Ramsay. One of the changes that she and her collaborating screenwriter, Rory Kinnear, made was to drop the first-person narration. The book, structured as a series of letters Eva writes to Franklin, allows readers to wonder whether her version of the events leading to the slaughter is altogether reliable. Is she reinterpreting Kevin’s early misbehavior or possibly inventing it? The film dispenses with these shades of ambiguity; there is no question that he’s a bad boy, monstrously so. Eva may be an inexpert mother but not an unloving one; and as she comes to terms with Kevin’s egregious intransigence, she is all the more determined to win him over or wear him down. A woman owes her son that much — if not for his sake, then for the greater cause of motherhood.
And yet this visually stunning movie may as well take place in Eva’s mind; it daubs nearly every shot with the color red, the scarlet signifier of a mother’s dishonor. From the opening scene, with the briefly ecstatic Eva reveling in a mosh pit doused in garish red paint; to the crimson paint that the angry locals have sprayed on the hovel she lives in after the crime; to the cans of tomato soup at a market; to the banner at Kevin’s high school — red letters on a red background — the film is suffused with the color of blood, the bad blood Eva suspects she may have transmitted to her son.
The main performances are as bright and densely textured as the color scheme. Swinton, always adept at playing extraordinary women, here gets inside an ordinary one; and the three boys who play Kevin, from toddler to teen, are simply, creepily splendid in conveying an unearthly, predatory poise.
Asked the moral of the film, Ramsay joked, “Don’t buy your son a crossbow,” then added, “Spend a lot of time with your kids.” Yet that is exactly what Eva does, and she is powerless against her son. He is a child on a mission to lead his mother to Hell. If she cherishes something, or someone, he will find a way to destroy it.