“We Need To Talk About Kevin”: Discussion

Scottish director Lynne Ramsay returns after almost a decade recess with a deeply upsetting adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s prolonged waterboarding session of a book, ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin.’ Thought-provoking and emotionally draining, it’s a powerful rumination on the difficulties of parenthood in the face of tragedy. It focuses on the day-to-day life of Eva (Tilda Swinton) as she struggles with memories of her son from Hell and deals with the aftermath of his violent actions.           If you’ve ever wanted to see a toddler express pure contempt, this is your film.

Exploring maternal ambivalence and mental disturbances, Ramsay’s aggressively rendered narrative is bathed in scarlet symbolism, using the colour red as both sign and signifier – a harbinger of danger, a portent of the blood that will inevitably be spilled and an indicator of both shame and sheer rage. The colour seeps through the fabric of the film in almost every scene – during a mass public tomato fight in Spain, a paint-bomb attack on a white house, Kevin’s making of messy jam sandwiches, and the presence of Warholian soup cans in the background during an unnerving encounter at a supermarket. In this regard, it feels like a student film with its over-the-top metaphors becoming running jokes for the audience. A film that’s already so bold in so many other ways doesn’t need to be so heavy-handed.

Nevertheless, Tilda Swinton more than compensates for this fault. It’s her most empathetic yet exhaustive piece of acting thus far, manifesting every feeling with subtle physicality and humility. Each muscular twitch and contraction of her pupils conveys the fear and distress stirring within her as she lives with what has happened. Ezra Miller’s portrayal of the elder Kevin is not as potent or perfectly pitched, seething perhaps with a little too much malice, whilst father-figure John C. Reilly gives a performance of consummate John C. Reilly-ness. I didn’t quite get the sense of a plausible family here, but maybe the casting represents the alarming ambiguity and domestic dysfunction that’s at the heart of the novel. Tilda Swinton certainly wipes the floor with them all – unsurprising given that the film appears to be playing out inside the dark recesses of her own mind through nightmarish visions and half-remembrances. At times it’s like being shown the most miserable family album in human history.

It’s too early to tell whether this film will attain the cult resonance of Ramsay’s earlier films (‘Ratcatcher’ and ‘Morvern Callar’). Maybe it’s too blunt, too on-the-head, too hermetically sealed to require repeat viewings. That said, ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ is still a powerful beast. This is a thrilling and frequently discomforting piece of cinema which proves beyond a doubt that Ramsay is one of the more original film talents that the UK has to offer, and I certainly don’t want to have to wait another ten years to talk about her next film.


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