We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

Dir. Lynne Ramsay. Starring Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell

We Need to Talk About Kevin is terribly powerful. During the first half-hour, I found myself doing something which, philosophically, I am deeply opposed to: I tried to turn the movie into a single word. I thought “unsparing” might be the right word, but that’s not nearly enough. I considered “pugilistic,” which I liked for the idea of pounding fists but dropped because it implies that the movie is competitive or combative in some way. “Battering” is a very near thing, and so is “relentless,” but neither one of those words has enough gravity. In the end I gave up on that and decided that it was better to think about the movie in allusionary terms. The movie I’ve seen which is most similar to We Need to Talk About Kevin is Hunger. They diverge significantly in their back halves, of course, but looking back I’m reminded of these sentences I wrote about McQueen’s debut feature:

It was around this point that I thought to myself, “I don’t want to watch this anymore.” I’ve turned off movies in the middle before for boredom…What happened to me while I was watching Hunger had nothing to do with boredom, or distaste, or even discomfort; it was this uneasy feeling of embarrassment, like I shouldn’t be seeing it, that it shouldn’t have happened at all.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is like Hunger in that way, and that’s huge; I think Hunger is probably the best movie of the millennium. I also think that if Eugene O’Neill had been around, he might have seen his work in this movie as well. His focus is on families twenty years further along than the family in Kevin, and no woman in O’Neill (with the possible exception of Lavinia in Mourning Becomes Electra) is so fascinating as Eva (Tilda Swinton). I was reminded of that very O’Neill device, to make something slightly better, to give us hope, before pulling the rug out from beneath us, throughout the film. Eva is trying to get toddler Kevin to roll a rubber ball back to her, and after some frustration and pleading, he does. She’s thrilled, smiling and praising him. She rolls the ball back to him, optimistic that he’ll repeat his performance. It bounces off of him. Or, in a sequence which is far more important to the plot, Kevin (played as a little boy by Jasper Newell) gets sick. He’s throwing up and the malice appears to be beaten out of him; he apologizes for this mess, which is far different than the other messes he made willfully and destructively, and which Eva presumably would prefer. Eva is reading to him about Robin Hood; he is curled up next to her on his bed. He has always favored his father, Franklin (John C. Reilly), but when he comes in to check on his son, the nastiness Kevin usually saves for Eva is directed at Franklin instead. His dad leaves. He cuddles closer to his mom, who kisses him. The next morning, Kevin is getting dressed by himself, obviously in much better shape than the night before. Eva offers to help him out, but there’s no tenderness in the boy’s voice when he tells her he doesn’t need help. She asks him what he wants for lunch. “I don’t give a rat’s ass,” he replies.

It’s a difficult movie to watch because there’s hardly a scene which is not marked by its cruelty. In one opening sequence, we see Eva, presumably much younger, at La Tomatina in Spain. The movie is big on the color red, and it starts here as too many bodies crush together, all of them covered in tomato guts. From above it is deeply disconcerting, even though one understands that it’s a cultural tradition featuring vegetables as opposed to the bloodiest street fight in history. It doesn’t help that Ramsay gives us this to work with at one point:

Even in this moment of joy for Eva, who is a respected travel writer, we see her covered with pulp and raised up in that all-too-familiar crucifix shape by some of the young folks of Bunol. Eva is lit with red frequently in those first thirty minutes, or otherwise covered in it, and we must fold in the excesses of La Tomatina with the redness which envelops her. She’s living in a small house by herself and someone has smeared red paint all over the facade and on the windshield of her station wagon. The red comes in through the windows, and when she tries to sand it off it gets on her skin and clothes. Red is an accent color just about everywhere throughout the movie, and Ramsay hits on it successfully maybe seventy-five percent of the time. This is a much higher hit rate than the vast majority of directors would be able to manage, I think, but it speaks to how difficult red is to use as a primary tone-setter in a film. Too much of it and it feels forced, as it sometimes does throughout the movie. Watching Eva roll the red ball to Kevin is effective, as is the red jacket Kevin (played as a teenager by Ezra Miller) wears in one scene, as is the ketchup Eva takes with her eggs. Bathing Eva in it, whether through sirens or the paint on the windows, works occasionally. In truth, I’m not sure Ramsay uses red enough: she might have made more of a success of it if she’d gone full Cries and Whispers.

On the other hand, the movie probably does not need two of its scenes. One of them occurs when Kevin is a fifteen-year-old. He and his mom have had a tolerably pleasant afternoon playing mini-golf. She says they’ll go home, change, and then go out to a decent dinner. She changes; she finds him tearing pieces off a comically huge chicken with his teeth. That’s effective in itself and it doesn’t need the scene at the end. Kevin throws a bottle of lemon juice on their evening by telling her what she’s going to do over dinner, is cliched. Kevin predicts, in a nasty voice, that she will go from classes to teachers to girls to drugs while she “sucks down” her bottle of wine; Kevin’s smart, but we’ve all seen this movie before and it’s not awfully impressive that he can call her out. The other occurs in the movie’s present, after Kevin is incarcerated. A guy at work has been giving Eva some signs that he’s interested in her, and when she tells him she’s not a dancer at the office Christmas party, he leans in close and lets her have it. “Where do you get off?” he begins, and then continues by telling her that no one else will want her after what she’s done. (It’s always phrased as what “she” did, even though no one can say that she did the deed Kevin is obviously responsible for.) It’s less effective than two scenes with similar endings. In the first, a woman slaps her across the face in broad daylight and Eva has to convince a man not to call the cops. In the second, she’s grocery shopping and discovers when she gets to the register that someone has broken all of her eggs. Both of those use stronger images and are more shocking than the terrible guy at the office. The terrible guy at the office could belong to any movie; the sight of a dozen obliterated eggs, followed by Eva picking shell out of her teeth, could only belong to We Need to Talk About Kevin.

What Eva’s responsibility is for Kevin’s crimes is totally unknowable, and thus it’s more interesting to me to wonder what her relationship with her son is. On the day that Kevin locks up the school building and opens fire on the students with arrows, inspired by the magic of Robin Hood’s perfect aim as recounted by his mother, Eva returns home from watching her son get put in a squad car and finds her husband and young daughter dead in the backyard; they have the red-feathered arrows in them. Kevin, for some reason, chose to keep the parent he has always hated alive; it’s not a reason he ever gives, even though Eva comes awfully close to asking it in the movie’s last scene. To answer the question of what they mean to each other, I have to go back to a scene where Eva tells her son about the little sibling he’s going to have. Kevin is not pleased with the idea of someone new, because duh, and in the end Eva says that if he doesn’t like the baby he’ll have to get used to it. Kevin is clever enough to know the difference between liking and being used to. For example, he says, in a line of dialogue which takes all the air out of the room, “You’re used to me.” Eva doesn’t contradict him, which is the heart of their relationship. There’s a fair bit of deception in what they have together, for certain. He manipulates her into infecting her computer with a virus by labeling a “hidden” CD in his bedroom “i love you.” And Kevin never admits to shoving his sister’s guinea pig down the disposal, or to blinding her in one eye with Drano, but he doesn’t have to tell Eva for her to know. (Franklin, who has been the target of his son’s wickedness once, doesn’t buy Eva’s story.) They’re used to each other, they understand each other, they recognize each other. As much as it seems that Kevin hates his mother, it would be a shame to lose the only person who gets him. By the end of the movie – heck, by minute fifteen – you start to think it’s a shame for Eva that her son didn’t leave her riddled with arrows in the backyard, too.

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