We Need to Talk About Kevin
My sister really tried to get me to read Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. But she refused, unbeknownst to me, to give up any major plot points besides the basics. Which is the greatest gift she could have ever given me. While I’d love to explain to everyone exactly why that We Need to Talk About Kevin is so worth reading and watching, I’m going to be as vague as possible. The greatest thing you could do is go into this movie blind.
Shriver’s book is technically an epistolary novel. It features the letters written by Eva Khatchadorian, to her estranged husband Franklin, two years after their eldest child, Kevin, conducts a school shooting. There are no responding letters, we only hear Eva’s thoughts, her feelings, we read her wrestling with the idea she may well be responsible for the horror’s of her son. Shriver asked director Lynne Ramsey not to use the letters device, she called it only decorative, and ‘uncinematic.’ Ramsey indeed made the right choice, voiceovers would have distracted.
The film chooses to follow Eva as she stumbles through life numb. She’s working at a small travel agency, and suffers daily small indignities both verbal and physical at the hands of those around her. Her ego, being completely devastated, allows her a numbness that she seems to actually resent. She wants to feel punished, she needs to feel some sort of pain that would allow her to atone. We’re treated to flashbacks of her life, some dreamy, some gritty. There are images of her blissful, newly married days. There are images of her thriving business growing, and her relishing success in the business world. Then there’s flashbacks of her having a son, of her as a postpartum depressive, failing to bond with that son, and watching her life slowly turn into what she never wanted: a mostly stay-at-home mom with a dreadfully cliché, ranch-style house in the suburbs.
It’s a taboo to discuss the possibility of motherly instincts not materializing, of not bonding with one’s offspring. So is the concept of postpartum depression whose very existence is the matter of some debate. And Kevin takes a brutal stance on all of it. What makes it more interesting is the fact Shriver wrote the book when she was in her early forties and was making the decision whether or not to have a baby before it would be too late, biologically. If the story she wrote didn’t convince her to pass on the idea, I’d be surprised.
The film could not have been gifted with better actors. John C. Reilly, as Franklin, is certainly the least impressive of all the cast. Perhaps its the role, which requires him to be overly kind, too willing to look past faults. Of course, the structure of the film leads us to believe the constant flashbacks are not so much how things actually were, but how Eva remembers them. The beauty, and sometimes grotesqueness of it all is fantastically underscored by an ominously menacing score by Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood. It’s a force to be reckoned with in its own right. First-time writer Rory Kinnear adapted the script.
Tilda Swinton’s Eva is a marvel. She has the most tired eyes of anyone I’ve ever seen. An angry neighbor, or perhaps family member of one of Kevin’s victims, splashes Eva’s worn down house with red paint. Eva decides to prostrate herself in front of God and everyone, sanding, scraping, and scrubbing off the paint. Daily, hands covered in the red paints, she cleans them furiously, trying to get them clean. It’s a lovely metaphor. The hopelessness in Swinton’s make-up-less face is heartbreaking, and fascinating as this anomaly of a woman refusing to continue life any more. Three separate actors played Kevin, one as a toddler, one as an eight-ish year old, and Ezra Miller as a teenager. Each, just as menacing, terrifying in their ability to manipulate their mother. It may, perhaps, be Rock Duer, the toddler, who scares me the most.
Watching the climax of the story left me feeling like I got punched in the gut. It was completely shattering in both the book, and in the script. It’s a masterstroke in a story that’s as devastating as it is thought-provoking.