Lionel Shriver’s 2003 novel We Need to Talk About Kevin emerged in a world that had moved on from the horrors of the Columbine Massacre in 1999, only to have them replaced by the mass murder of almost three thousand people during the 9/11 attacks in New York. In the wake of both of those tragedies, people were almost universally left with a single question: “Why?”.
Many referred to these two incidents as a time when America lost its innocence, while others simply saw them as the days that shook the United States out of its complacency. Shriver intimated that the post-9/11 mindset was very much a part of her novel in an interview with BOMB Magazine, indicating that the character of Franklin represents “the novel’s self-willed optimist about the possibility of a happy family”. If the novel or film of We Need to Talk About Kevin makes you feel uncomfortable, it’s probably because it is hitting closer to home than we realise.
Director and co-writer Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Callar, Ratcatcher) tells the twin stories of the middle-aged Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton, I Am Love), who is struggling to come to terms with the guilt and aftermath of a tragedy perpetrated by her son Kevin (Ezra Miller, Another Happy Day). Through a series of fractured flashbacks, we learn of Kevin’s early life with his mother and father Franklin (John C. Reilly, Terri), from Eva’s initial reluctance to take on a mother role through to her difficulties in raising a child who perpetually rejects any maternal love.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is immediately gripping, not because it is about a high-school shooting but the effects of one, and ultimately the causes of it. The film presents itself initially as a puzzle, not giving away what the tragedy has been or why Eva lives in isolation. It becomes rapidly obvious what has transpired, but the early scenes of townspeople harassing Eva in the street, throwing red paint at her house and outright hitting her in public are fascinating because they are without context and offer no easy answers. The film firmly sets itself apart from Gus Van Sant’s Elephant in that it is about the aftermath, and the survivor’s guilt. Eva remains in town despite this harassment because she is punishing herself. The strength of this narrative is the extent to which audiences will feel that Eva is responsible for any part of the tragedy.
Tilda Swinton is phenomenal in the role of Eva, playing at least two distinct characters struggling to come to terms with tragedy. As the younger Eva, we watch her love turn to fear, and feel her desperation to connect with Kevin. In her reflective older persona, she is an empty shell of her former self, and part of the fascination of We Need to Talk About Kevin is watching the transition between those two personas. John C Reilly reminds us of why we used to find him so fascinating to watch prior to his series of patchy forays into broad comedies Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Step Brothers and Cirque du Freak. This is the cluelessly affable Reilly from Boogie Nights, Magnolia and Chicago, who makes us laugh while breaking our hearts. He is the embodiment of America in this film, by maintaining an overtly optimistic buoyancy in the face of the obvious threats to his well-being before suffering the consequences of inaction. Much like America, he even puts the weapons into the hands of the aggressor.
Perhaps what will be difficult for audiences to accept is just how “evil” Kevin is throughout his life, and the themes of the film may leave many feeling cold. While one of the central themes of the novel examines the “nature versus nurture” argument, implying that Eva’s maternal indifference during pregnancy and the early years of Kevin’s life ultimately led to him being a “bad seed”. While this is certainly not another demonic child film in the vein of The Omen, Ramsay perhaps overplays just how sinister the child is, taking every opportunity to remind us that something is not quite right with Kevin. The moment he is given his first bow and arrow to play with, with father Franklin actively encouraging the sport, Ramsay is clearly telegraphing how things are going to go down. However, while younger Kevin (Rocky Duer) may well be all dark eyes and sinister stares, Ezra Miller walks the fine line between petulant adolescence and the truly dark. What is frightening about his performance is how much of him can be seen in every teenager around the world.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is released in Australia on 17 November 2011 from Hopscotch.