Hailed as a success at Cannes and the BFI London Film Festival, We Need to Talk About Kevin has taken its time to filter over to UK screens. But it has been worth the wait. This masterclass in film adaptation from Scottish director Lynn Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar), rips out the bloodied, beating heart of Lionel Shriver’s novel and moulds it into something fresh, visceral and entirely unforgettable. With first-rate performances from Tilda Swinton (Burn After Reading, Michael Clayton), John C. Reilly (Magnolia, The Aviator) and up-and-coming young star Ezra Miller (Afterschool), We Need to Talk About Kevin is a profoundly chilling and utterly unique experience.
Tilda Swinton plays Eva Katchadourian, a mother struggling to readjust when her son conducts a brutally calculated high school shooting. Having been separated from her family and put on trial for parental negligence, Eva can look only to her bi-monthly prison visits for concrete ties to her old life. But the memory of what she has left behind lingers. Looking back at her former life from a grimy sofa in an empty house, she considers whether the relationship she had with her son formed the man he would become. Delving deeper even than Gus Van Sant’s Elephant into the stories behind the headlines, Ramsay’s film is a haunting study of the forgotten victims of these crimes.
It is Ramsay’s deep understanding of the power of imagery which sets Kevin apart from the rest. The narrative twitches erratically from past to present, splicing bright moments of familial bliss with the bleak, dreary reality of Eva’s existence in the present. Small visual cues thread the narrative together amidst all this chaotic toing and froing. A shot of cells dividing and multiplying – the moments of Kevin’s conception – is replaced by the similarly rhythmic, monotonous process of Eva’s photocopier in the present. Both suggest relentlessness, inevitability: there’s no turning back now.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is at its core a story about ambivalent motherhood. It poses the eternal question of nature versus nurture, of whether Kevin’s emotional disturbance is innate or learned. One element which Ramsay could have exploited more is the significance the book places on the ambiguity within the dysfunctional mother-son relationship. What is made clear throughout is that Kevin grows up with a mother who feels no connection to him. In the book Eva’s skewed unreliable narration prevents us from seeing the truth, so we never know who is truly to blame. One moment in the film does echo this idea. When Eva plunges her head into a sink of water, her face blurs and becomes that of her son. The similarity is striking.
While the book seems to suggest that they are ultimately both at fault, Ramsay’s film ultimately sides more with the idea of Kevin as the innately evil child and Eva as the fraught and helpless mother. However, this simplification is perhaps necessary for the film to work without the depth of explanation provided in Shriver’s novel. And this take on the relationship is backed up by some exceptional performances. Ezra Miller captures perfectly Kevin’s awkward, sneering sexuality; while Swinton remains vulnerable while still hinting at Eva’s stubborn and snobbish side with characteristically nuanced flair.
Adapting a novel which is so crucially tied to its narrative voice is no easy task. However, as Danny Boyle proved with Trainspotting, a successful adaptation harnesses the novel’s mood and tone and translates it into an entirely different vocabulary. While Shriver’s novel is dominated by Eva’s voice, Ramsay cannot not allow her Eva this outlet. Mired in thick and often unbroken silence, her life is haunted by words left unsaid. Johnny Greenwood’s score, complimented by a few artfully chosen tinkling 1950s pop hits like Buddy Holly’s ‘Every Day’, goes some way to filling this void.
What Shriver conveys through words, Ramsay must bring to the screen in images. Eva’s own culpability, for example, is referenced throughout by the constant use of red. The film’s opening sequence is slathered with it. Eva is held up above a crowd of revellers at Valencia’s La Tomatina festival, soaked like a new-born baby in deep red juice and pulp. As the narrative shoots back to the present we see her wake up, pale and groggy, bathed in crimson light. In an ominous warning from a targeted vandal, her house and windows have been covered in blood-red paint. But rather than merely painting over it, Eva dedicates what seems like weeks to sanding and scraping the paint away. This is a therapeutic process, a slow and masochistic search for catharsis that will never truly be realised. The Lady Macbeth references are rife; blood-red paint covers her hands, and turns up unexpectedly on her face and hair.
A moody, chilling and provocative rollercoaster of a film, Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Kevin is a masterpiece in its own right. Shying away from the sensationalist scenes which could easily have cheapened it, Ramsay’s film is bold but restrained. With dense imagery and whirlwind editing, We Need to Talk About Kevin is visually impressive and eerily affecting. Not to be missed.