Cinema Review: We Need To Talk About Kevin

Liv Walker reviews compelling drama We Need To Talk About Kevin, starring Tilda Swinton, John C Reilly and Ezra Miller.

An adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s award-winning novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin brilliantly captures the book’s tense atmosphere – and stays with you long after the credits have rolled.

The film tells the story of Eva (Tilda Swinton), the mother of a teenager who commits a school massacre. Alone, impoverished and reviled by the community because of her son’s crimes, Eva wallows in the memories of Kevin’s young life. She always believed him a malevolent force out to intentionally rile her, whilst manipulating his father (John C Reilly) into believing he is a sweet all-American boy. Deprived of her career and forced by her husband to move to the suburbs, Eva’s resentment of motherhood is clear as she and her son battle for supremacy whilst keeping their enmity hidden from the father of the house. As Kevin gets older his tricks get crueller, leading the audience towards the bloodshed we were warned of in the opening frames.

Director Lynne Ramsay copes admirably with the story stumbling backwards and forwards, exploiting every art-house camera trick in the book to de-naturalise the footage, making us acutely aware that it is Eva’s thoughts and memories we are viewing. Reflection, light tricks, blurred lenses and swaying cameras are all brought into play, creating beautiful images which highlight the distorted way we often see our memories. The multiplying cells that create this monstrous child in Eva’s body; her stumbling feet as she comes out into a media scrum; a flapping poster whilst she waits for a job interview – these only serve to remind us we are seeing her truth, not necessarily the truth. Ramsay’s skill manages to make even a supermarket seem otherwordly.

Although the plot contains enough gore to make it worthy of a horror film, much of that is left off-screen. The bloodshed is instead symbolised by the repeated use of red; Eva shot from overhead in a scrum of bodies at a tomato-throwing festival, a petulant primary-age Kevin smearing furniture with jam, Eva washing off the red paint thrown at her house in hatred. The red running off Eva’s hands echoes Lady Macbeth, the guilt for what her son did never being washed away.

There are fantastic performances from the three actors who play Kevin at different ages. They share the same impassive expression in black eyes, the same odd breathing pattern, and the same personality switch whenever the father is in the room. Tilda Swinton gets to show the full range of her considerable talent as Eva, contrasting the free spirit before motherhood, the embattled wife trying to keep her husband whilst controlling her son and the haunted, permanently apologetic shell she becomes after the shooting.

We Need To Talk About Kevin is understandably not an easy watch. Despite the massacre, it’s impossible to believe Eva’s version of events throughout. How could baby Kevin have been capable of vindictively screaming just to annoy his mother, whilst being a lamb for his father? But the scene where Eva stands beside a road drill just to drown out the awful noise beautifully encapsulates her desperation.

The film is an extrapolation of the astonishing levels of guilt inflicted on mothers by themselves and by society at large. Despite the enormous personal sacrifices expected from Eva, despite her attempts to draw her husband’s attention to what he doesn’t want to see, she still calmly accepts all the abuse for her son’s crimes, believing herself to blame.

This cleverly-crafted, beautifully-shot movie takes the best from its source novel and translates it using all the power of cinema. Many details which heighten the drama are understandably lost, but the performances and cinematography more than make up for them. Adaptations of phenomenal books are almost always a disappointment, but We Need To Talk About Kevin is an adaptation to match Trainspotting or American Psycho – where the book and the film are equal and distinct works of art.

FMV Rating: ****1/2



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