Saturday, 22 October 2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin [Review]

Lionel Shriver herself has called this adaptation of her 2003 novel We Need to Talk About Kevin ‘terrific’. Fans of the book should need no more justification nor persuasion than that to head out right now and watch the film. Newcomers to the twisted tale of the teenager gone so horribly wrong; to the cereal-and-videogame nuclear family, blasted apart by the devastating effects of the actions of one cynical psychopath, should read on.

The teenager in question? Kevin Khatchadourian (Ezra Miller), the fifteen year old so disillusioned with the world that he feels the need to exact a brutal revenge upon it and its inhabitants. But Kevin’s actions are not nearly the primary focus of the film, though still the most deplorable and shocking; instead, they act as simply the backdrop, while the emphasis lies with mother Eva (Tilda Swinton), and her struggle to deal with the consequences of her offspring over an eighteen year period - a period which director Lynne Ramsay showcases through five distinct stages.

Before Kevin is born, we see Eva happier than we ever witness her again; jovial and full of life with husband Franklin (John C. Reilly). During the pregnancy we see Eva’s own psyche deteriorate as she becomes depressed at yoga classes - and Kevin’s infancy only proves testament to his actions in later life. It is the nature, or nurture, by which Kevin brings himself to commit such atrocities that form the principal themes of the next two periods: as a young boy, played by a forever unsettling Jasper Newell, and as a teenager in the form of Miller. The final time period Ramsay focuses on is the primary one; the aftermath of Kevin’s deeds and the consequences of them on Eva’s life. The intricate web that Ramsay weaves around these five stages can be jarring at times, particularly during the opening scenes, but while the narrative may take some initial decoding, the stop-start, reflective nature of it works to great effect.

Much of this is done through the tense construction of suspense, as we are greeted with images of the fateful event just moments into the film - and so the film becomes a question not of what, but of how, and why. It is here that Ramsay excels in her representations of Shriver’s characters, in exemplifying all their flaws and strengths into unravelling the cause-or-effect argument that is Kevin himself. As the film builds slowly to a final climax of the nature of Kevin’s actions, foreshadowed by a darker, downwards spiral of events, we are given some evidence as to the reason for his detrimental view on society. But, much like the film’s scattered structure, this is never clear - but for good reason.

For Ramsay enjoys her craft, and enjoys her control over her audience still more - juxtaposing her arguments for Kevin’s twisted psychosis in striking, nurtured parallels, but also in opaque natures, the film serves little on a plate; this is a meal you have to sink your teeth into to digest fully. The common belief in the townsfolk is that of the nurture argument; Eva finds herself the most despised mother in all of America, attacked in the street and the victim of constant vandalism. This is contrasted through the lifelong feud between mother and son; an embedded, almost natural hatred between the pair that Eva so desperately tries to overcome, but for her son’s bitter, cynical outlook on life. From the off, Kevin cries and cries and cries, and Eva almost punishes him (or else attempts to drown him out) by parking herself next to a pneumatic drill. But Kevin lies silent when dad Franklin carries him - perhaps reflecting a natural instinct to cause his mother hell.

Yet still Eva’s cynical, monstrous offspring is increasingly propagated throughout the film as a product of his mother’s upbringing; the visual parallels they strike - take the extreme close ups on mother and son’s mouth as each pulls either fragmented egg shells or broken fingernails from their lips - seem to reflect the disparaging nature by which Eva fails to correctly raise her disobedient son. Franklin remains oblivious to any of this, as one parent always seems to in such situations, and so Eva is left to psychological ruin at the hands of her own child. It’s a startling treatise for parents, soon-to-be or otherwise, that may just cause its audience to rethink their own stance on the subject.

But not only does Ramsay enjoy tormenting her audience, dangling threads to questions she refuses to answer, she also clearly revels in the opportunity to splatter the silver screen with Shriver’s words. Bloody and stained, the direction is blemished with all manner of reds - paints; lights; even fruit in a blatantly foreshadowing (yet slowly chilling) opening scene which sees Eva before Kevin’s birth. Perhaps the most poignant and striking aspect of Kevin is indeed Ramsay’s exquisite imagery; splattered crimsons douse the melancholy milieus across all five time periods the audience are tasked with piecing together. Such is the emphasis on the colour connoted so frequently with danger that even Kevin’s wardrobe choices are resplendently fitting, in the form of a royal red jacket he sports so convincingly.

Oh yes, the cast are indeed convincing. Ezra Miller ensnares and terrifies; cold, calculating and cynical, he almost manages to make the audience empathise with Kevin’s mindset in some ways - his deconstruction of the smallest of human interactions during dinner with his mother is startlingly awakening, and his belief that his parents want to divorce due to him is instantly relatable to anyone who might have been there at some point in their life. John C. Reilly offers a stark contrast to Eva; the parent whom Kevin seems to bond with effortlessly, but also the parent who is unquestioningly unaware of Kevin’s psychotic degeneration.

But it is neither of these faces which so blemish the posters, billboards nor indeed the screens of Kevin - it is Eva herself, stunningly portrayed by an actress full of contradictions, Tilda Swinton. Fragile yet determined; graceful and effortless yet distinct and emotionally powerful; Swinton delivers on all fronts and takes the limelight as the woman whose entire world crumbles at the hands of a brutal, victimising son. And yet the closing scenes of Kevin leave further mystery as to her decisions towards the soul who has unfathomably ruined her existence; Ramsay gives no answers, but shrouds us in an emotional enigma that requires more deciphering than even the convoluted timeframe she flits between with such enjoyment. But then, to fully deconstruct the psyche of a mind such as Kevin’s would ultimately be unworthy in the two lines he is allowed to explain himself, and criticism here may well be undue.

So do we need to talk about Kevin? Lynne Ramsay certainly gives us plenty of conversation. Her thought-provoking, haunting and ultimately shocking horror lies more within the realms of the psychological thriller, but still provides a chilling reprise of a family so torn apart by cynicism and twisted mentality - and only further brings into light the question of nature vs. nurture. Kevin is a worrisome watch for mothers-to-be and a shocking insight for the rest of us, and one that will stay with us long after the credits roll.


See also: Beautiful Boy (2011)

Dir: Lynne Ramsay
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly
BBC Films, 112 mins, 21/10/11

Synopsis: Mother Eva (Swinton) reflects on the breakdown of her relationship with both her son (Miller) and husband (Reilly), and the climactic events that tore apart her life in suburban New York...


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