We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)
Written by Lynne Ramsay & Rory Stewart Kinnear
Directed by Lynne Ramsay
Who do we blame when something terrible happens? It’s becoming fairly common in the United States for there to multiple school shootings every year. When this happens, there is a strong innate human need to place the blame on someone. Parents are typically the focus of the public’s ire. In the case of Sandy Hook Elementary, the mother of the shooter literally gave him the gun thinking it could be a hobby to help with his mental illness. I’m sure if you are reading this outside of the United States, you are thinking, “Why would you give someone with mental illness a high powered killing machine?” and you are right to question it.
Kevin (Ezra Miller) is in prison for killing multiple students in a high school massacre. His mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton) lives in solitude, a pariah reviled by her city. Through flashbacks that jumble up the timeline, Eva tries to pieces together what led to her son’s vile act. We see that from the moment he was born, Eva felt a distance from her child. He screeches as a baby, glares at his mother with hate as a toddler and young child, and as a teenager, he learns to manipulate, to figure out the levers of social power and pull them. She still visits her son in prison, trying to perform an emotional autopsy and determine if she is to blame for what happened.
The choice to tell Eva’s story through her own memory was a brilliant one by Lynne Ramsay. The result is the audience feeling like they have the same mental breakdown Eva experiences. We jump from one moment to another, years passing in an instant, trying to make a connection between events until ultimately it becomes a fruitless task. Eva relives her life this way, a form of purgatory, the same she punishes herself by eaten a carton of broken eggs, shells, and all.
The home Eva and her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) is a minimalist museum. It’s never a warm home. Even Kevin’s bedroom is bare-bones, the very minimum of what you expect to find in a child’s space. The house reflects the unsettled nature of Eva with her family. The opening scene of the film shows her reveling in a crowd surfing during a tomato festival in Spain, one of the few times we see her happy. Domesticity is not what Eva really wants, she worked as a travel agent, and she wants to span the globe again. But family, and in particular Kevin, keeps her trapped in the house.
Eva is covered in the juice of those tomatoes standing as an omen for the blood she believes is on her hands for Kevin’s acts. Her new home is vandalized by unseen neighbors, splattered with red paint. As she attempts to clean it off, her hands become stained, and she scrubs more aggressively to try and erase it all as a quick as possible. But the memories keep wounds fresh, and during one visit with Kevin, she’s reminded of a horrible transgression she committed and that he has kept quiet for her all these years.
The physical resemblance between Eva and her son is apparent from the opening of the film. Eva dips her head in the sink, and there’s a quick cut to Kevin doing the same from the same angle. As a teenager, their hair color and style become similar. The only time we see Kevin out of his predator-like state of scorn is in the final scene, his head shaved as he prepares to be transferred to an adult prison facility. By that time, he admits he’s forgotten why he killed in the first place, paralleling how Eva has come to realize just what her role in this tragedy truly was.
We Need To Talk About Kevin is most definitely a psychological horror film, a recreation of a parent’s greatest nightmare. It’s also another piece of proof that Lynne Ramsay is one of the great directors of our time. Her ability to create non-linear tapestries of story and emotion is masterful. This was my second time watching We Need To Talk About Kevin, and it resonates on multiple frequencies. Like a good book, I can see this film growing with you as you get married, have children, develop certain regrets. The film posits that we are so trapped in our own heads we can’t often see the impending doom that is hurtling towards us.