No-one ever told you parenting would be easy, an old adage suggests, but even fewer said it could literally be murder. Can a child be born evil, or is such an inclination solely a result of their upbringing and surroundings? Lynne Ramsey’s adaptation of the Lionel Shriver novel of the same name seeks to offer a thoughtful representation of every mother’s worst case scenario, but ends up delivering something closer to lurid pulp in the Bad Seed vein.
The film’s constant use of symbolism punches in the face when it should be whispering in your ear. The recurring motif of the colour red to reflect the guilt suffocating protagonist Eva is particularly obnoxious and deployed at every possible opportunity. It turns what should be a slow-burning dread into an exploitation tagline: ‘Can your stomach handle the blood about to spill? Watch as a poor, innocent woman is destroyed by the very thing she sought to love!’
We Need To Talk About Kevin
Director: Lynne Ramsey
Release Date: December 9, 2011
The mirroring between Eva and her demoniacal son, Kevin, is a little more subtle, but suggests depths which never fully come to pass. Does Eva have so much trouble with Kevin (who, predictably, is a little angel when his gullible dad is around) because he is a reflection of her own neuroses? Might this also be a case of the unreliable narrator, given how the narrative sticks strictly to her point of view?
Posing such questions is all very well and good, but the film dawdles when it should be substantiating the debate it is seeking to begin. There’s a pretty clear formula to how the story unfolds: in between segments showing how badly present day Eva is struggling to cope in her daily life, flashbacks show Kevin misbehaving to increasingly destructive ends (as a toddler, he’s just spiteful; as a teenager, he’s sadistic) while Eva looks exasperated and wonders why no-one sees the same boy she does, then it’s back to the present and rinse-repeat.
As far as the nature-nurture question goes, the balance tips heavily on the side of ‘nature’. As the teenage Kevin, Ezra Miller plays him as a sneering pantomime villain (to be fair to the actor, he isn’t given much option) whose sole aim in life seems to be wounding everyone around him yet somehow convincing all but long-suffering mum of his innocence. The only inclination to believe she might be an unreliable narrator is down to how over-the-top her son’s villainy is. Taken at face value, the sensitive subject matter is handled with a thudding lack of nuance. If Kevin wanted to be an exploitation shocker, that would be fine. The problem is that it comes across that way, when what it really seeks is artistic merit.
Holding it all together is Tilda Swinton, whose rakishness and agonised demeanour mark her as an outsider from the very beginning. For a film so laden with shotgun symbolism, her performance is one of startling introversion, seeming to exist more as a presence than as a real human being. It is easy to see why motherhood would be a struggle for her: the only time we see her exuding any kind of warmth, it is before the fling with John C. Reilly’s Frank that ends in her pregnancy and ruins the successful career and life she had built for herself up until that point.
Aha, you might now be thinking, perhaps that is how Ramsey (credited as a co-writer as well as director) aimed to balance out the nature-nurture side of the story. If Kevin turns out irredeemably evil, perhaps it was a result of his picking up on his mother’s anguish at his existence being the cause of her losing her freedom. Again, this would be a valid point, but for the fact that Kevin appears as a supernaturally unpleasant child from the start, despite Eva’s obvious efforts to encourage and support him.
When she does finally flip and accidentally cause him a serious injury, the mental trauma she suffers is heavily emphasized. What’s more, the one time Kevin falls ill is the only time he emotionally connects with his mother, turning back to his devious ways once his recovery is complete. No matter how bad the environment a child has grown up in, the idea that anyone could be that manipulative at such a young age can only be explained by something in-built, rather than created.
Even for those who haven’t read the book (of which I am one), the outcome of Kevin’s behaviour is obvious from the start and Ramsey’s attempts to make a big deal of Eva finally asking Kevin what should be a key question is undermined by how clumsily she has managed all the elements leading up to the moment. Throw away any artistic intention and the film becomes passably entertaining. By the time Kevin receives his birthday present, it’s almost worth cheering this new opportunity for the teenage devil to kick his evil up a level. The dread is painted broadly, but there’s some fun in that, if not much suspense. Its failures as an art film piece together into a competent horror, even if the feeling abides that the subject matter and Tilda Swinton’s startling performance deserved better.