Seeing Red
By Matt Connolly

We Need to Talk About Kevin
Dir. Lynne Ramsay, UK/USA, Oscilloscope Pictures

In 2001, Lynne Ramsay was attached to write and direct the film adaptation of The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold’s bestseller about a murdered girl watching her mourning family from the great beyond. She remained involved in the much-delayed project for two years, but eventually left and was replaced by Peter Jackson. The rest, unfortunately, is history. As directed by Jackson, the film not only trampled its delicate subject matter under a stampede of garish visual chicanery but also denied its own unseemly fascination with the details of child rape and murder through hollow professions of forgiveness and pseudo-spiritual uplift. Slogging through Jackson’s CGI-slathered swamp of a film, one couldn’t help but imagine Ramsay’s alternate-universe version of The Lovely Bones. What would the Scottish director, so praised for her tough-but-tender depiction of troubled youth in Ratcatcher (1999), have done with Sebold’s book?

We Need to Talk About Kevin would seem to provide an opportunity to see what might have happened. An adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel, it follows the emotionally wrecked mother of the eponymous child, a teenage boy whose brutal rampage through his high school has landed him in prison and splintered the family. The project could have counteracted flashy, fraudulent efforts like Jackson’s with a clear-eyed vision of how horrific violence and repressed emotion corrode the domestic unit.

As for the results . . . well, at least The Lovely Bones had camp escape hatches in Stanley Tucci’s wormy-squirmy serial killer and Susan Sarandon’s boozy grandma. We Need to Talk About Kevin offers no such exit from its suffocating vortex of self-serious exploitation. Here is a filmmaker who, like Jackson before her, clearly gets off on staging her touchy subject matter in the most ghoulish, button-pushing manner possible, unsubtly intimating the bloodbath to come. (Kevin sure loves that crossbow he got for Christmas!) Lest we accuse her of peddling what amounts to a demon-seed potboiler, though, Ramsay bombards us with chronology-scrambling narrative curlicues, ironic pop music interludes, and “artfully” elliptical montages that bludgeon the viewer into submission. Certainly, no film starring Tilda Swinton could be anything less than a meditation on evil’s banality and our inability to comprehend mass tragedy and those who perpetrate it . . .

For all its gazing-into-the-void posturing, of course, We Need to Talk About Kevin posits a fairly simple explanation for why Kevin—a white, upper-middle-class teenager of presumed economic and social privilege, played as a young boy by Jasper Newell and as a teenager by Ezra Miller—would decide to lock his class in the school auditorium and open fire. You guessed it: blame Mom! Specifically, blame Eva (Swinton), an accomplished travel writer who puts her career on hold when she gets pregnant with her firstborn son. Ramsay and Rory Kinnear’s screenplay ferrets out these details slowly, through a time-skipping structure that flashes back and forth between the present-day Eva (seen as an shell of a human being) and the years leading up to Kevin’s violent act. We watch Eva’s husband, Franklin (John C. Reilly), react excitedly to the news of Eva’s pregnancy, while Eva herself somewhat ambivalently agrees to move out to the suburbs. She’s less than enthused when giving birth as well, responding with exhaustion when the nurses tell her that she needs to push harder. Once Kevin’s out in the world, Eva expresses further frustration with her newborn’s tempestuous demeanor, at one point peering into the crib of her ever-squalling son and hissing about how if not for him she could be in France. France!

If my response to the film sounds more than a little glib, it fits with the tenor of We Need to Talk About Kevin. Whether through lazy writing or a failed bid for provocative ambiguity, Ramsay and Kinnear offer little insight into why Kevin develops into a Damien-esque hell child who, by age six, is flinging profanities at his mother; smashing peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches onto the glass coffee table; and generally acting like a cold-blooded little shit whenever he and Eva are alone. The film’s general refusal to offer boilerplate psychologizing might be appreciated in a better film. Here, though, it feels more like an excuse to showcase Kevin’s demon-seed antics without bothering to really deal with their causes or effects. And given the gaping void that Ramsay refuses to fill—namely, why Kevin acts the way he does—the viewer cannot help but link his sociopathic behavior to those earlier notes of maternal discord. (Nothing like a dash of vague misogyny to spice up the undifferentiated porridge of “shocking” parental abuse that takes up the film’s middle act.) Kevin is that rare film that offers both too much and too little characterization.

As for those who would defend Kevin on the grounds of Ramsay’s visual sense, I would argue that the tricks she pulls out here—a grab-bag of shallow-focus close ups and distorted audio effects—less evoke Eva’s splintering mental state than art-house banality. And then there’s the color palette: did you know that red is a color usually associated with violence and rage? No? Well, We Need to Talk About Kevin will give you a crash course: red dresses; red furniture; blinking red numbers on an alarm clock; crushed red tomatoes being thrown on Eva in a film-opening dream sequence; rows and rows of tomato soup cans. (Look away, Warhol.) Its visual excesses surround the viewer while offering no real formal rewards or emotional insights. There’s no room to breathe within Ramsay’s universe. Hers is an aesthetic of asphyxiation.

Scene after interminable scene of Kevin putting Eva through some new parental torture eventually lead us to We Need to Talk About Kevin’s inevitable climax. Like any good pornographer, Ramsay saves the money-shot for the end, offering up the expected toe-curling violence, as well as a “twist” at once vile and pathetic. That much of the gore comes to us in pseudo-elliptical snapshots only underlines the slobbering glee the film takes in exposing its faux heart of darkness. Rarely does filmmaking feel so smug yet so desperate at the same time.

Throughout, Swinton is, of course, fine. Few actresses explore emotionally hollowed-out modern women better, so perhaps it’s not saying much to note that her work here feels like a serviceable version of earlier, richer performances. That she comes out of Ramsay’s meat-grinder of a movie with a shred of dignity speaks to her grace and talent. Indeed, those few glimmers of something approaching human interaction within We Need to Talk About Kevin emanate from her. There’s a halfway-decent moment when she insists on taking Kevin out for a day of mother-son fun. The invitation practically comes encased in ironic quotation marks—their relationship is beyond deteriorated—yet Eva is ever hopeful. They go to a mini-golf course, and she snidely comments to Kevin upon the overweight family standing behind them in line. Kevin cannot help but smile in complicity. It’s an intriguing little moment: a mother’s exhausted, angry attempt to try something, anything, to connect to her extraterrestrial of a son. One might wonder what sort of film might have been pieced together from more scenes like this, which consider the imperceptible build-up of resentments that can fester into something unspeakable.

But, as it is for the film’s characters, it’s too late for “what ifs” and “coulda-woulda-shouldas.” We don’t need to talk about We Need to Talk About Kevin anymore. The less said, the better.