We Need to Talk About Kevin
Seamus McGarvey's cinematography and a stunning central performance lift the gloom
We Need To Talk About Kevin is Lynne Ramsay’s third film following the superlative Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar, and the first following a nine year hiatus that included the collapse of her proposed version of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.
It is based on the Orange prize-winning novel of the same name by Lionel Shriver, which is composed entirely of letters from protagonist Eva Khatchadourian, the mother of Kevin, to her presumably estranged husband, Franklin.
In this roundabout manner, we find out about Kevin’s massacre of his fellow schoolchildren, how he was brought up and how Eva feels herself complicit in his eventual meltdown. Simultaneously, and just as importantly we find out what Eva's life is like in the small town in which the massacre occurred, and what petty revenges her friends and neighbours exact upon her.
Ramsay essentially ignores the epistolary manner of the novel – instead of a voiceover and repeated shots of Tilda Swinton’s Eva frantically scribbling away, the film takes things one step closer and instead inhabits the guilt ridden mother’s fractured psyche.
In this way We Need to Talk About Kevin initially unfolds, like this year’s The Tree of Life, in an associative, impressionistic manner. It circles the key events of the narrative but never looks too close, too painful for Eva to look directly at but keep seeping in to her day to day life nonetheless.
The disjointed jumble gives way, after about a third of the film's running time, to settle on the concurrent narratives of Kevin’s upbringing and Eva’s life after the killings.
The film runs out of energy at this point. After the more radical, liberating and effectively internalised version of events at the start, the more prosaic through line that comprises the rest of the film feels like a routine reel through of events. Although it is effectively done.
Despite this, Ramsay's adaptation has some aces up its sleeve, the chief of which is Tilda Swinton’s performance. There is a Buster Keatonesque stillness to it. She bears the brunt of the townspeople’s ire with a vacant look, accepting each and every blow with grave acceptance and the knowledge more is to come.
It’s a performance that dominates the film. Her husband, played by John C Reilly, doesn’t get much more to do other than look slightly sad-sacky.
The only other performance that gets a look in is Ezra Miller’s Kevin, a pale young man with a sharks tooth grin. His performance, and that of the two child actors that play younger versions of the character, are over the top, yes, but that’s as it should be. We’re inside Eva’s head here and what we’re seeing is the nightmare that her life has become.
Nightmares are not realistic. So whether the young Kevin is deliberately soiling himself after having his nappy changed or slamming bread and jam onto the clean coffee table it’s more about Eva's life achieving a critical mass than a conventional tell all.
Despite the misgivings this remains a sharp, confident film with fantastic photography from Northern Ireland’s own Seamus McGarvey and stunning performances from the leads. My only suggestion, and it’s a big one, is that it mightn’t be the best film to see if you’re thinking of having children.
We Need to Talk About Kevin runs at Queen's Film Theatre from October 31 to November 3.