Director Lynne Ramsay opens We Need to Talk About Kevin, her highbrow horror film about motherhood, with writhing bodies jammed together Hieronymus Bosch-style. Red fluid sprays across bare shoulders and bubbles up around knees. Is it a blood bath? No, it’s a bacchanal, a tomato festival. And as Tilda Swinton comes into sight, crowd-surfing along the top of this mosh pit, she’s laughing in pure abandon.
Then she wakes up. That’s about the closest Swinton’s character Eva gets to carefree in Ramsay’s (Morvern Callar, Ratcatcher) intense and atmospheric adaption of Lionel Shriver’s savagely smart novel about a reluctant mother and her sociopath of a son. Kevin is played by a succession of lookalike brooders, most significantly as a teenager by Ezra Miller (who was also a troubled kid in last month’s release Another Happy Day). To avoid ruining the plot, we actually need to talk about Kevin’s actions as little as possible. But suffice it to say, when the story begins he’s already committed crimes so atrocious that Eva’s only relief from guilt lies in dreams.
In the aftermath, Eva is cut off from her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), whose tendency, pre-atrocity, was always to take a conciliatory position, not so secretly favoring Kevin — “He’s just a little boy.” True, but the little boy plays Franklin like a fiddle. With Kevin in jail, Eva moves solo into a dump, gives up her career as a writer and takes a job at the only place that will hire her, a low-rent travel agency. She’s the local pariah, even less loved than Hester Pryne; minutes after she lands her job, an irate woman in the street sees her pleased expression and slaps her. Her home and car are regularly doused in red paint, one of the prompts for the tomatoey dream. You get the idea; whatever Kevin did, it involved lots of blood.
In her book, Shriver teased the reader, doling out the specifics of Kevin’s crime over the course of a galloping, can’t-put-it-down narrative about maternal guilt. On the page, Eva is her own prosecutor, judge and jury, but most important, she’s also the investigator, picking over the shreds of her family history, looking for culpability. Her original ambivalence about having a child was answered with an epically colicky baby who seemed angry from the outset. In the movie as well, Kevin is hard to love — although Franklin found a way — and he meant the end of Eva’s life as she knew it. No more traveling (in one of her few outbursts in the film, Eva tells her solemn baby she’s rather be in France than with him) and a move from exciting Manhattan to the staid suburbs. Swinton gives a raw, uncompromising performance and is in many ways a brilliant casting choice — an actress to be admired from a distance (does anyone feel cool enough to be her pal, even in the imagination?). Shriver’s Eva is prickly, harsh, witty and her stoicism and ability to endure ultimately make her admirable. But she’s not someone you could imagine being friends with. Maybe that’s why I felt slightly cheated. Ramsey didn’t have to do any heavy lifting here; she could rely on Swinton’s very Swinton-ness as an easy short cut to character development.
Yet she doesn’t mimic the style of the book – written as letters to the absent Franklin – by using a voice-over narration. That would have been the easiest way to orient the audience. Instead Ramsay deliberately teases through disorientation. She’s more intent on capturing the delirium of Eva’s present than examining the past, so she lets the story fragment and wander. For the first 10 or 15 minutes, those who haven’t read the book may feel alienated, or flat out lost. Ramsay stays anchored enough to avoid the drifty dream of say, Gus Van Sant’s similarly-themed Elephant but still, the film is dominated by the aesthetic impulse. With a subject is something as elemental and visceral as motherhood, this seems the wrong choice. A movie can be too arty.
Take the spectacular shot of Eva as she pushes Kevin’s carriage through Manhattan streets. Every glimpse of Eva’s antipathy toward motherhood seems justified, no more so than here. She stops dead next to a man with a jack hammer, realizing how the perpetually miserable Kevin’s screeches manage to soar even above the deafening sound of asphalt being torn apart. “It really is that bad,” say Eva’s self-pitying eyes. It’s a beautiful composition and visually, scenes like this are a delight (better clothes and it would be a Vogue shoot) but it spoke to something inherent in the film that nagged at me. Ramsay has Eva take on the burden of guilt, but not perhaps, her share of the blame.
As a novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin epitomizes all the uncertainties of the nature vs. nurture question. It calls on you to consider every angle – the resentful mother, the too malleable father or some flaw in this child’s core or chemistry – and accept all of them as part of the Kevin equation. But if I only had the movie to judge by, I’d say oh, well, it’s definitely nature. Kevin, wailing away in that carriage, is the bad seed, plain and simple. By the time he hits adolescence and is played by Miller — whose physical match with Swinton is uncanny, the kind of cruelly angular beauty on which smiles look out of place — his mother is a helpless bystander in the face of what he is. I missed the novel’s provocative ambiguity and its startling flashes of humor. But Ramsay’s film has its own strengths. We Need To Talk About Kevin doesn’t just bring you to the outskirts of a parent’s worst nightmare; this fever dream of guilt and loss takes you straight inside.
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