We Need to Talk About Kevin: Mother and Son

Lucas De Barros Silva - March 14, 2016

When we talked, I talked about me, you talked about you, when we should have talked about each other. -Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)

Kevin (Ezra Miller) and Eva (Tilda Swinton) understandably look and act very similarly, since they’re mother and son, but the fact that they look much more alike than the rest of the family turns this into a terrifying message, which is indeed a heavy-handed choice but is as necessary as all the things that separate them and are just as consistently and explicitly conveyed throughout the film. Lynne Ramsay’s much talked about 2011 film (only the third feature film in a 20-year-old career) about the before and after of a school shooting organized by Kevin himself is very dark poetry, and details like these form connections that are all the more painful to watch because they are inherent to the point being driven.

They make up a suffocating environment of constant pressure, constant judgement, and never-ending pain and depression. After Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar, Ramsay has moved further away from the social realism typical of British cinema by painting We Need to Talk About Kevin with an overwhelming texture of sounds and images. The film bathes in an attack of primary colors that govern nearly every single shot in the film: blood red predominates throughout the film, imprinted in Eva’s life like the horrible memories it signifies; yellow and blue are just as prevalent, but detached from its usual positive connotations to convey pure and everlasting cold and sickness. They are in every set of clothes, in every piece of furniture, in every decoration item, in the food, in Kevin’s toys and the night lights.

They reach abstract levels of oppression in Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography, whose Bressonian framing and intricate playing with focus and color (the blurred red that could come from police headlights turns out to be her alarm clock striking midnight), and Jonny Greenwood’s haunting score, counter-punctual in its mixture of uplifting pop music and dramatic instrumental compositions. These are merits of their own, but more importantly inevitable layers to Ramsay’s authorial approach to cinema. Ramsay is not afraid to cover her film with strong imagery and aggressively expressive compositions with multiple connections between each other: with meticulous design of sounds and images, she materializes emotions (here to a negative extreme) and turns small details into large transmitters of information. The result is something like an Expressionist horror film with all the lights on, where every scenes bleeds into both the previous one and the next with meaning and emotion.

This colorful, musical outside surrounds and plays a contrast to bare, near lifeless sets and powerful performances by the cast. Eva, much like Kevin, couldn’t have darker hair or more pale skin, and her looks reflect her twisted personality. Fearlessly played by Tilda Swinton, she lives in a state of constant conflict with herself and her family, unable to understand her own feelings or be understood by anyone else. Her facial expressions read like a permanent state of prey to Kevin’s predatory and stone-cold antics, but she also shows how she often feels stuck in that situation, burdened by the decision to even have a child and settle down in the first place; what started as a change she was not prepared for grows to demoniacal proportions. While she tries to learn to love, accept or at least get used to her son, Kevin seems to be less interested in that and more in feeding this violent separation by appealing to his father’s (John C. Reilly) naivete and counteracting every decision she makes in both relationships, be it positive or negative. So much pain is left implied, unresolved and then untreated I obsessively wished someone would cry for help and understanding.

The script is particularly talented in how it uses a nonlinear editing not to create suspense and tension for narrative pleasure, but to give a strongly encompassing portrait of events that precede and follow traumatic experiences. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, trauma is actually a process, built over a long period of time, sometimes even an entire lifetime, and it doesn't go away but rather remains attached to us. By playing three different timelines in parallel (Kevin’s early years, his adolescence up to the shooting and Eva’s first two years afterwards), the screenplay by Ramsay and her husband Rory Kinnear (not the actor) perfectly succeeds in addressing these timelines as integral to each other: the way they influence one another helps us see them through different perspectives. And the narrative of the film is so perfectly connected it is like a 5000-piece puzzle shaping up and coming to form in front of our eyes: many are the moments in which we realize a connection between two different images in time, or an image and the subsequent one. With the narrative tripled and held together by a continuity of color palettes and overlapping sound effect, these moments are multiplied to an extent in which it comes as painfully logical that things would lead to the catastrophe in the center of the film.

The refusal by the father to understand that things are going wrong with Kevin and Eva, her refusal to renounce pride and address the problem instead of fighting it, Kevin’s sociopathic aspirations hiding in plain sight all throughout the film and arguably a general incompetence in detecting this kind of behavior in our society that the film reserves solely for the third narrative are excruciating, and deservedly so. Here is a film that shows how complicated life can be when there are too many problems, and not enough communication, and not enough compassion. This is a film that shows how dangerous and how overwhelming negligence can be, and it’s all about perspective. It's incredible how revealing the choice of focusing on the mother is. I can see how I would as a little boy antagonize a parent for not understanding me and not treating me well, even though in truth this relationship goes both ways and needs to be supervised; I should care and understand her own position as well as mine. I can see how a lack of intervention and an overdose of pampering, just because I'm a boy, would only help this aggressive sentiment grow over the years to the point of no return in my relationship with my mother.

I would definitely be unable to see part of that happens because I was always treated as just a boy doing things that boys do and that this lack of freedom suffocates my mother's influence in important family decisions. But that is speaking for a hypothetical self from my knowledge of the way children think, obviously, since this story isn’t mine; I could definitely misunderstand the signs if looking at this situation from the outside, like the father did; part of the problem seems to be, for instance, in the fact that the mother is the one being rejected by her son - it is extremely easy in our world to take a woman’s personal beliefs and ideas as exaggerated, even paranoid.

By the time of its release, We Need to Talk About Kevin had very polarizing reviews, divided over many things and nearly every aspect of the film: whether Kevin is a mystery to be solved or not; whether the film is punishing you or revealing the ugliest of truths; whether the focus of the film on the mother instead of the son makes it a psychological thriller infused with lucidity or a horror film designed to shock and sensationalize; whether the contrast between the mother and the father is unrealistic or a terrifying possibility (here it’s possible that the casting of Reilly is a reworking of his performance in The Hours as yet another neglectful husband). In trying to find right answers I found none: the opinions on all of these differ in between reviews and within the reviews themselves.

Which version is true I do not know, and my limited perspective is a result of my limited authority on the subject. But I believe that by showing the scattered mind of a survivor of such trauma and showing pain in a place where it has always been is the right choice. If other questions and answers about this film seem to oscillate between praise and criticism it is arguably because this is a very hard topic to address with overall consensus. I will commend this effort as a masterwork, mainly for how it cares about its characters and urges us to try to understand ourselves and the people we know as well as possible. We Need to Talk About Kevin tells us we need to talk about everyone.

Lucas De Barros Silva

Lucas de Barros Silva is a freshman double majoring in Communications and Cinema Studies. Born in Los Angeles and resident of Porto Alegre, Brazil, Lucas is the Events Director of the Penn Cinema Initiative and a regular writer for The Moviegoer. A dedicated cinephile committed to watching one film every day, he is a huge fan of uncompromising directors like Andrei Tarkovsky, Stanley Kubrick, Terrence Malick, David Lynch and Yasujiro Ozu.