The mother of a teenage boy who went on a high-school killing spree tries to deal with her grief – and feelings of responsibility for her child’s actions.
Above is the official synopsis sentence for WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN.
In the past I have commented on synopses that give away an entire story, in the case of Lynne Ramsay’s new feature, this information is a mere starting point for your understanding of what is to unfold.
For the first 20 minutes of the film, I was alternately annoyed and bored. There was no traditional shaping of the story, rather it was presented as a series of episodes jumping back and forth through time; impressionist snippets that challenged me with their brevity, incoherence and with the stunning notion that this was a universe where a John C Reilly character was married to a Tilda Swinton character. As unlikely screen couplings go, the Swinton/Reilley combination seemed hard to beat.
However, Ramsay absolutely knew what she wanted to achieve and eventually the story was told less artily and more directly. It’s almost as though the plan was to repel the audience with technique before luring us into what would otherwise feel like the cold, alienated universe of young Kevin (Miller) and his mother Eva (Swinton). Both Swinton and Miller’s performances are excellent. The two youngest Kevins are wonderfully directed also; often our expectations of younger actors aren’t high, but these kids deliver. Ramsay has control of all the elements of her film. The tone shifts continually, yet we are left with a cohesive whole. Amidst the darkness there is also an offbeat sense of humour that flares up intermittently and to good effect.
I had been impressed some years ago by Ramsay’s second feature MORVERN CALLAR (2002). Amazingly, ‘KEVIN’ is only her third feature, the first being her 1999 debut RATCATCHER. She had been slated to direct THE LOVELY BONES but sadly this came to nothing. Three features in 12 years isn’t excessive and it is to be hoped, that the success of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN on the festival circuit will lead to more projects soon.
Speaking to people who have read Lionel Shriver’s popular book, it seems the Eva character has been softened somewhat, but she certainly doesn’t come across this way to audiences unfamiliar with the novel. Swinton plays her as a fierce loner who is forced to compromise with her circumstances. There is never a point where we feel the life of Eva is a warm or inviting one. She is uncomfortable in her skin and her marriage is clearly not everything she would want; worst of all, her feelings for her son are deeply conflicted. Eva mostly doesn’t display the characteristics we would associate with a “good mother”, her naturally spiky nature is sorely challenged by her strange child. This is the fascination of this story. Family norms are bent and broken, but something recognisable remains. We are tweaked and teased by portrayals of behaviour that swings between the extreme and the absolutely mundane. We aren’t given the comforting ‘out’ of believing these people are monsters and that they’re nothing like us.
As the story is completed piece by piece, we think about the nature of motherhood and what maternal love means. As we see how Kevin treats the world and the vulnerable beings in his orbit, we have to think about our notions of good and evil. As disturbing as the premise of the movie is, I felt reasonably detached for much of its length, but in the end, I was moved. I had been drawn in subtly by the film’s craft, performances and strange compassion for the damaged family at its centre.
WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN opens in Australia on Thursday, November 13. It runs for 112 minutes. I rated it 4/5.