Film Friday: We Need to Talk About Kevin

Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel takes a look at the fundamental relationship between parent and child, through an candid exploration of psychology.

Fifteen years after the publishing of the original novel, it is a film that, unfortunately, still resonates today, in terms of its central topic. This psychological thriller delves into the life of Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), in particular her relationship with her son Kevin (Ezra Miller), and experience after her son commits a massacre at his high school.

In a constant back and forth between the past and present, the story is gradually pieced together like a traumatic, inescapable fever dream of Eva’s, who (in the present) walks through life practically detached from reality as she deals with the aftermath of her son’s crimes. We watch Kevin grow up, and delve into his complex and frustrating relationship with his mother, which brings into question the sociopathic tendencies of a child and how this perhaps resonates with the nature versus nurture argument.

As a baby, Eva struggles to calm Kevin and blames him for ruining her life. As a child, she unsuccessfully attempts to share affection as well as discipline him when he acts out. It is also during this time that Kevin displays resentful tendencies towards his mother, deliberately antagonising her whilst charming his father. Time passes and the strain between the two grows, particularly with the arrival of a new sibling. After a tragic accident in the family, Eva blames Kevin whilst her husband tries to defend the son, unaware of his sociopathic tendencies. As an adolescent, Kevin murders several students in his high school as well as his father and sister, forcing his mother to live in what basically becomes hell on earth.

With every minor (or major) act of defiance from Kevin, Eva becomes increasingly exasperated. Kevin refuses to breastfeed, toilet train, continues to masturbate when Eva accidentally walks in on him, all the while looking her directly in the eye. However, Eva moves to a house near the prison in which Kevin is incarcerated, continues to visit him, and even recreates his bedroom exactly as it was, ready for his release. So the immediate questions that arise are: Does she forgive him? Does she love him? And how closely are the lines blurred?

Some of the most prominent imagery that is instrinsic to the film is the prominence of red, bleeding across the screen, taking on its traditional symbolic value of representing guilt. Whilst the massacre occurs off-screen, there are a number of scenes where red seeps onto the screen in substitution. In one scene, Kevin makes a sandwich, smothering thick, red jam all over the bread, and pushes the two pieces of bread together, causing the jam to overflow. Later, Eva makes the same sandwich for her lunch, with this image drawing a parallel being herself and her son. When Eva is in the supermarket, she sees a mother of a victim and goes to hide behind the aisle. The camera pans to her standing in front of an entire shelf stacked with crimson red soup cans, as she tries to run away from the guilt she feels, personified by the mother of a victim right before her. In a flashback, Eva is shown at La Tomatina, drowning in the thick puree of crushed tomatoes. In the present she is intermittently depicted covered in red paint, as she tries to remove the vandalism from her house. In drastic contrast, Kevin is pristine in his white shirt as he exits the high school after committing a massacre. This draws on the fact that Kevin seems guiltless despite his crime, meanwhile Eva is forced to live with the guilt of what she could’ve done to prevent this all – was there anything she could’ve done differently?

The general qualm with the film, upon some scouring some forums, seems that the  interpretation of the novel is not up to par with many people’s standards. Whilst I haven’t read the book personally, this is unsurprising, as rarely do you ever see a faithful adaptation that captures everything that seem vital to the book. The simple response is that a film does not have the temporal viability to depict everything that takes place in the novel, including many metaphors and symbols that might be significant to the narrative development; however, after reading through these comments, any criticisms I had were explained by the fact that they were in the book but not shown on screen. For instance, one scene depicts Eva taking Kevin to play golf, and as she sees an overweight person in her periphery, she goes off on a sudden rant about obesity, which seems to come out of nowhere. In the novel, this rant reflects her narcissistic character and how she believes herself to be superior to others, contributing to how Kevin perceives his mother, therefore is not so unusual or out of the blue.

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The ending is one that is evidently up to interpretation. On these same forums, many argued that Kevin spares Eva because he ultimately loves and respects her more than anyone else, and that he sees part of himself in her. However, my immediate reasoning was that he spares her because he loathes her more than anyone else, and wants to see her suffer in her own personal hell, which is what the result is. When preachers turn up to her door, asking if she knows where she will go in the afterlife, she retaliates she will be going to hell, for sure, although she is ultimately already living it. Kevin takes away anything Eva ever cared for, her daughter, her husband, and her career, then forces her to live in the shattered remains that comprise her life, in a town of people who despise her.

This does not account for the final scene, though, where they embrace. It is evident that she still loves Kevin, despite what he has done, but I suppose the issue harks back to the aspects of the novel that are not reflected on the screen, where (according to a number of comments), Kevin begins to demonstrate a sense of regret. In the novel, Kevin demonstrates an inkling of guilt towards the situation with his younger sister Celia, but this does not happen in the film. Instead, Kevin is depicted as entirely remorseless, emotionless and sociopathic, only until the very final scene where the audience can detect a hint of uncertainty, a hint of human emotion.

This film has a particular resonance in current American society, and offers a necessary exploration of an alternative perspective. Whilst We Need to Talk About Kevin delves into childhood psychological development, an element that would be amiss to not identity, the narrative focuses on the parent of the criminal, which is an experience we do not often consider in such cases.

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