We Need to Talk about Kevin

Christopher Smail


There is one particular scene in Lynne Ramsay’s haunting film We Need to Talk about Kevin where a teenage Kevin, the demented offspring of Tilda Swinton and John C Reilly and played by newcomer Ezra Miller, is glowering down upon his parents from the landing, his chest naked and his cat-like face framed by greasy black locks. With a look that could be described as evil you kind of think that this is how the creepy kid from The Omen would turn out in his teenage years. It’s a fitting comparison, because Ramsay has made a psychological horror film in the same vein as that classic Richard Donner movie. A horror film that is less interested in overloading the audience with buckets of blood and more in tune with the underlying neurosis of a serial killer, focusing on cranking up a sinister atmosphere you could cut with a knife.

A lot has been discussed and written about We Need to Talk about Kevin recently. It’s the first film by acclaimed Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay in over a decade. It’s the film that will win Swinton another Oscar. It’s the film where Ezra Miller gets medieval on your ass. Literally in this case, with a crossbow, in a school gymnasium. Based on the novel of the same name by Lionel Shriver, Ramsay has ditched the bulk of the text, streamlining it. Most notably when adapting it for the screen she’s discarded the letters that grief stricken mother Eva writes to her son in prison which form a significant part of the novel. The adaptation though has gotten no complaints from Shriver herself.  She even went as far as writing a rather self-gratifying piece in The Times commending the film and Ramsay.

The film is light on dialogue but is filled to the brim with startling imagery to compensate. It tells of successful travel writer Eva (Swinton) who begins to freak out when she discovers she is pregnant by her goofy husband (John C. Reilly) and commences a life long battle with her disturbed son Kevin (Ezra Miller). His psychotic behaviour includes blinding his younger sister in one eye and stuffing her hamster down the sink.

One of the creepiest elements of the film is how similar mother and child look. Swinton and Miller are styled with identical black hair and both have the same pale high boned faces. It’s this level of symmetry that can unnerve, but give the audience a way into the complicated and horrific relationship that these two human beings endure. As a psychological thriller We Need to Talk about Kevin is thoroughly successful. The major philosophical/psychological theme that it explores is the theory of nature versus nurture, the eternal argument about who is to blame when said child royally screws up and ends up going loco on some classroom chums: science or the mother. The film isn’t so simplistic as to merely point the finger at Eva and offers the only real answer out there: there ain’t no answer. You can coo and bleat your heart out about parent’s rights and good genes but you’re never going to come up with concrete proof. What is clear is that Eva has nothing but resentment towards Kevin since day one, and has trouble hiding it.

Ramsay has always been a gifted visual filmmaker. Right the way back to her short film Gasman to her acclaimed feature films Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar, her ability to tell stories through beautiful, thought provoking imagery is evident. She continues this tradition in We Need to Talk about Kevin as Ramsay floods the screen in a painter’s eye for colour. A sequence of a young Eva and her husband getting caught in a rainstorm in New York is memorable for its startling visual tone: lashings of golden light captured in off-kilter camera angles. Ramsay’s use of the colour red is perhaps a tad over the top in places though it certainly manages to suggest the overall tone of the film: blood, death and fear. It’s the opening sequence that sets it up as it seems Eva is caught in the midst of the Tomatina – thousands of semi-naked bodies splashed in crimson liquid. The structure of the film is quite experimental as it has more of the feel of a video installation then a mainstream Hollywood picture. The narrative is constantly jumping about from the past to the present so we are presented with a fractured interpretation of Eva and Kevin’s relationship which kind of works – considering the connection that the two have. It’s a mesmerising film: it draws you in and refuses to let you go until it is over. Disturbing is putting it mildly though, some scenes are plain horrific and it’s not because of any blood and guts, but rather the deep psychological trauma on display.

 One hopes Ramsay doesn’t take another 11 years to make a film. Contemporary cinema needs voices like hers: directors who have something to say and will not settle for anything less then what they want.











Christopher Smail is one of our favourite beasts in the NLP stable of film reviewers. We love his spiky, no-nonsense style that speaks of a young man who knows and loves his films…

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