We need to talk about Kevin: Cinematic quality in a sea of ambiguity.

It’s been a bit of a film week for me.

I saw We Need To Talk About Kevin, and I need to fess up right away that I haven’t read Lionel Shriver’s book. Nor do I intend to. I have nothing against Ms Shriver, but I read Room by Emma Donoghue and I will confess up front that I have had my fill of women writing about sensationalist events in a ‘literary’ way. I don’t want to be harsh, but its a thing I can’t really take more of.

Having said that, I wanted to still my prejudice by seeing the film. It’s a weird kind of morality but it helps me sleep at night.

I have said elsewhere on this blog (here to be exact) that I am tired of portrayals of men as ‘just plain bad’. While I think there is a place for it at another time in history (perhaps), at this moment in time literature needs to be exploring the changing male and his relationship to the world in a deeper context. While I understand sociopathy exists, I think novels (and films) that explore male sociopathy are a dime a dozen and we don’t need any more of this at the moment.

Separate from this, I went to see the film.

This film is Lynne Ramsay’s third. She made Ratcatcher in 1999 and Morvern Callar in 2002. Its been a long time coming, but she teams up with Tilda Swinton here to make We Need To Talk About Kevin.

This is a film about guilt and confusion and the layering of memory over reality to distort beyond all recognition any attempt at connecting with the self. Eva (Tilda Swinton) is the mother of a child who has committed a terrible crime. She is living with the desperate pain of being inadequately prepared to deal with her situation and having no access to any sorts of resources besides pills and alcohol that she uses to self medicate. Because the perpetrator of the crime is underage, society has turned on the mother of the child and Eva has decided to accept this responsibility as some sort of way to atone for something that she is not at all sure that she did.  You see, Eva had a baby she didn’t want. And then when the baby turned out to be difficult, she found the child difficult to love. When the child does something so bad bad is the wrong word for it, Eva is wracked with guilt. She knows it isn’t her fault, but then, maybe it is.

Apparently the book is a little more preachy than this, making it rather clear we are meant to question Eva’s potential responsibility in what she has done. The film wisely doesn’t go there. instead we are left with Eva and her horrible daily experience. Life in the fog is represented well through images and sound. Random sounds of sprinklers, haunting echoes and screams are posited against Eva’s attempts at a ‘normal’ life. Much has been made of the use of ‘red’ – the film opens with Eva attending Valencias famous tomato orgy, to the red splattered across her house through vilification, to the red in the jam sandwiches Kevin eats too much of – implying there is spilt blood and plenty of it.

The film is a little heavy on the symbolism. It isn’t gauche like ‘Black Swan’ but it is ever-present. There are some overwrought moments. Eva running away from mothers of the deceased and hiding behind a wall of Campbell’s tomato soup, ants ants and more ants, the archers target reverberating in the black pupil of Kevin’s eye. There are some terribly lame moments, like the bowling balls and pins scattered around the lounge room in the final moment when Eva goes to the balcony to see what horror has been left for her under her sprinkler. The film can be a hop from moment to moment of intense dramatic symbolism that there isn’t really any excuse for.

What saves this film from being appalling, is Tilda Swinton and the way she has been directed. They are a wonderful partnership. A Subject that DOES need to be addressed in art is the complicated response to parenting powerful women have. I’ve heard this film described as the worst post-natal depression ever, and that isn’t far from the truth. The wonderful moment when Tilda Swinton prefers the jack hammers sound to the endless cries of her child is a moment every powerful mother recognises.

There were some other plot holes for me. I found it simply entirely unbelievable that in sixteen years of being parents together husband and wife don’t have a moment of unity around Eva’s problem with her child. I found this incredible and quite ridiculous. This woman complains on a daily basis that her child is difficult and driving her nuts and we are meant to belive the man who loves her has never once suspected the possibility Eva may be something other than a nasty power-hungry female who hates her own child. For me, this is another example of an incomplete perspective around men.  Eva would never have fallen in love with the man John C. Rielly would have to be if that were the case.  I also have to add here, I found the choice of John C. Rielly manipulative. Apparently in the book Eva’s partner is meant to be a man she thinks she isn’t quite good enough for. John C. Rielly is never able to pull this off, and he (as usual) comes across as the good-natured stumbling boob who is completely in the dark about what is happening under his nose.

I also found the vilification of the society difficult to swallow. I’ve argued about this with female friends, who said they would turn on the mother of child who did this without hesitation. I think the fact that I wouldn’t shows the community is at the very least divided on this issue.  There is one person in the film – a child damaged in the massacre – who shows compassion for Eva. This is the only person and I found that impossible to swallow. It is possible that Eva feels everyone is against her, and perhaps the child in the wheelchair is meant to show us this. Either way, I felt it was a rather ridiculous assumption.

As I said in my opening remarks, the other serious problem is the ‘badness’ and the ‘calculating’ attitude of Kevin. This makes the film more like a horror story rather than a real-time examination of a pertinent issue. I am not in agreement with everyone that the very young Kevin is brilliantly acted – the scene where Kevin wont ‘play ball’ is just plain silly and the child star doesn’t pull it off for me. Oh, and the ball is red of course. The older Kevin played by Ezra Miller is excellent – an exciting new talent.

Kudos to Swinton and Ramsay for making the woman so interesting anyway.  I guess I appear a little all over the shop about this film. IN the end, I have to say it’s not a great piece of cinema, but it was a dam sight better than The Ides of March.