Another late review – sorry! Can you tell I’m trying to get everything up to date before the madness of the Leeds Film Festival begins?
Another film I’ve been looking forward to for ages – more so because I’ve read the book by Lionel Shriver, and met Lionel Shriver so she could sign it (and dying from a chest infection in the process). I couldn’t wait to see a film version of it, see how they would put such a difficult and introspective story onto the big screen. And the trailer is amazing – probably my favourite of the year. I love how it only gives fractions away, the underlying horror behind it, the abrupt ending. How can you not get that song stuck in your head?!
I was genuinely surprised in the build up to the film’s release, the majority of people who had no idea what happens in the film, what “event” is acted out by Kevin. The novel was such a book club favourite when it came out, with popular and critical success. It came to me by word of mouth, and the main reason for reading it was because of ‘the event’. I thought everybody knew! But – a lot of time has passed, and a whole generation will come to this film not knowing anything. Film reviews have been very careful not to give anything away, but I’m afraid, I will want to discuss it openly, so if you don’t know what happens at the end – and don’t want to know – then go watch it (why you haven’t already is beyond me) and then come back for a gander.
The film starts as in the book: with Eva (Tilda Swinton), after ‘the event’ has happened. In the book, she tells her story through a series of letters to her husband; here, it is told through flashbacks which are a little hazy and hard to navigate at first, and it does help to have that background knowledge of the story already in place, but you soon settle into the flow. It’s been such a long time since I read the book (5 years?) that some details had left my head entirely – so I’m a bit of a loss to work out how much from the aftermath is taken from Lionel Shriver’s words or created for the screen by director Lynne Ramsay. But it’s clear Eva is being tormented by her neighbours and random passers by for something which has happened in her past, something which we know involved her son Kevin (Ezra Miller), as she visits him at the local juvenile centre. Her house is splashed with red paint, she is assaulted in the street, she is insulted at work, all of her 12 eggs are smashed in their carton whilst she shops at the supermarket (a heinous crime, I know you’ll agree. In fact the egg incident whilst offending all my beliefs – eggs are the best thing ever – was also the most disturbing to me: that an angry neighbour could be so precisely vindictive). The use of colour in this film – particularly red – is extraordinarily powerful. It represents happiness (a young carefree Eva crowd surfing in a tomato throwing melee), hatred (the red paint vandalism) and death – the blood which will cover ‘the event’ Eva has to live with for the rest of her life.
We see Eva, happy, in love with husband Franklin (John C Reilly) and pregnant with her first child. But she seems wary and hesitant from the very beginning, unable to rejoice in the glows of impending motherhood. Kevin, when he’s born, is a screaming monster and Eva is unable to control him, seeking solace in roadworks and snapping at him: “mummy was a lot happier before you were born”. Just aptly, Kevin is gentle and calm with his father, who adores him and is unhappy his wife is not bonding with their child. A move out of the city into a bigger house in the suburbs frustrates Eva even more, and as she stays at home to look after toddler Kevin it’s clear things are not quite right. He is unresponsive to his mother, worrying her enough to take him to the doctors where he’s diagnosed as “fine”. After she devotes all of her time to decorating her study, Kevin runs it with a paint gun, saying he was trying to “make it more special.” He refuses to be potty trained, infuriating Eva so much that she accidentally breaks his arm. She is devastated by this, but Kevin knows this, and works it to his advantage. For someone so young he is coolly and terrifyingly astute and conniving, yet sweetness and light when his father comes home from work. The switch he is able to flip between parents is agonizing to watch: we feel for Eva as we know she is telling the truth, and that her worries about her son are of genuine concern and fear, but Franklin cannot see that and is further saddened by her increasingly hostility towards their “slow, but lovely” boy.
Eva – we feel out of loneliness or revenge – becomes pregnant with a second child. It does not go down well with Franklin or Kevin. Celia is sweet, loving and innocent – completely the opposite of Kevin. It has proved to Eva that she is not pre-disposed to have evil children, or that it is something fundamentally wrong with her as a parent. Despite this she tries to maintain a good relationship with Kevin, who leads her on by playing mini golf with her, or going out for a meal, but then mocks her and ridicules their whole relationship, just so she is aware of who is still in control. Then a series of events take place which will set fate in motion: Celia’s guinea pig goes missing, and Eva finds it in the kitchen sink pipes. Then Celia is rushed to hospital after drinking bleach which was left out on the side, and loses an eye. Eva knows Kevin did those things, and we know Kevin did those things, but
is at a loss as to why his wife hates their son so much she would blame him for the very worst. They start to discuss divorce (there’s a very telling remark from Franklin along the lines of “at least custody will be a no brainer” which is unbelievably hurtful, even to the audience watching). All of this so far has happened through flashback, with current Eva living in a ghostly shell full of pills, alcohol and wanton meals in a hut of a house. We fear the unimaginable is coming and it does – if you’re clueless up to the this point it will hit you like an iron bar in the stomach. Sort of luckily, I knew what was coming, but was still surprised by how much they chose to show. Franklin
A few days shy of his 16th birthday, archery expert Kevin (Ezra Miller) goes into school as normal, bike locks the doors closed so no one can get out, and positions himself in the upper reaches of the gymnasium where he starts to pick off students at random with his crossbow. News of the massacre soon fills out into the town, and Eva rushes from her job to the school where parents, police, ambulances, firemen are all trying to get into the locked building. Stretchers are wheeled about with arrows sticking out horrifically from teenage bodies, some dead, some alive. Eva is desperately looking for her son. She finds him when the doors are wedged open and he walks out triumphant with his weapon, smirk on his face. Eva is paralyzed with shock. Kevin is led away by the police, and slowly, Eva returns to her car in a daze and drives home to tell her husband. When she gets home, no-one is there. She wanders from room to room looking for her husband and daughter, and finally finds the back door open. She walks through to the garden – the sprinklers are on for some reason. Franklin and Celia lie face down on the grass, arrows in their backs, long dead. That is the moment which shook me: they show flashes and glimpses of the school massacre, but only from the outside – never from Kevin’s POV. I thought we would see Eva disappear into the garden and the deaths would be inferred to us another way. But no: we see it all. It is brutal, and utterly shocking, even though I knew it was coming. She has lost her whole family, apart from the one person whom she is so afraid of.
Up until this point I thought the film was fantastic. Vivid, uncompromising, raw, but I was worried they wouldn’t be able to convey the very last thing which happens in the book – what has divided so many readers. Eva meets with her son, who is about to be sent off to an adult jail, and comforts him. We see she has already made up a room at home exactly how his bedroom was at the old house for when he is released. She has forgiven him, and she still loves him, despite absolutely everything that has happened. Kevin, always so cocksure of himself and a step ahead of the pack – is being broken by the penal system. Covered in scars and bruises from inmate attacks, visibly shaking at the thought of going somewhere worse, he is asked by his mother why he did what he did. After a long pause he says “I used to think I knew, but now I’m not so sure.” And he clings to his mother. Argh, that moment killed me! Such a brilliant and emotional way to get the complexities of the characters and the ending of the novel across to the film audience. It’s just beautifully done. I thought they wouldn’t be able to do it, but they do it with aplomb.
Tilda Swinton is amazing – one of her most devoted performances to a role, and she is utterly convincing as the woman who has the worst case of prolonged post natal depression one could imagine. She is perfect for this role, and there is something very wrong at the top of the film world if she is not recognised in the upcoming awards season. She is a complete tour de force in this film, though the rest of the cast are equally as dedicated. And special mention to the casting director for this film Billy Hopkins: the three Kevins – toddler, infant and teenager – are brilliantly chosen. Not only do they all look startling like one another, their performances are sinister and calculating to perfection. Especially the younger actors – incredible! Ezra Miller is also a unique and exciting find – anyone who bring pathos to the character of a killer is supremely talented. I can tell he’s an oddball as well – he’ll excel at unconventional roles going forward.
There is so much about this film to admire, I can’t praise it enough. But I must make a point to say how I loved the continual shot of Eva stood against a wall – whether it’s in her destroyed study, against rows of baked bean tins in the supermarket, or the rafters of her house – the allegory of always having her back up against a wall, trapped in this life now Kevin is in it, and is still in it… I just thought that was so clever. This film just defines quality filmmaking. Lynne Ramsay should get plenty of plaudits, too.
There will be so many questions – as with the book – when you finish watching that will stir debate amongst you and your friends/partner/family/colleagues for days. Is she responsible for what he did, as her neighbours – grieving parents of lost children – believe? Is Kevin the way he is because of her (nurture) or was he just born that way (nature)? Why does she forgive him at the end? Can he truly change, is he remorseful for what he did? Does he even understand what he did? And why did he do it – for attention, for revenge, for shock? What really is his relationship with his mother? It will hound you, and torment you, and you will most definitely want to talk about Kevin.
GO AND SEE IT, what are you waiting for! The length of this review alone should tell you We Need To Talk About Kevin is not only one of my favourite (I use the word loosely) films of the year, it’s also one of the best films of the year. That Lionel Shriver, the author, celebrates its interpretation should be more than enough to drive you to the cinema.