Tilda Swinton is an incredible actor. She is capable of making truly deplorable characters compelling onscreen. From the drugged up kidnapper of Julia to the unambitious adulteress of I Am Love, Swinton can make you want to watch a bad person make terrible decisions for two hours, no problem.
The difference between those films and the Lynn Ramsey-directed/co-written adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin is narrative cohesion. Swinton is at her best when you get to see the progression of her character. Chop up her work and the spell is broken.I can’t imagine there is an easy way to approach this subject. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a film about the aftermath of a school shooting. The central figure is Eva, the mother of the boy who carried out the attack. She is the pariah of the town, harassed, bullied, and beaten because her son took their children away. She’s lost her home, her family, and her sanity in the wake of the attack. Every time Eva takes a chance on herself, she’s hurt all over again by someone else.
Now imagine trying to tell that story using an epistolary novel where only one person writes any letters.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a pastiche of scenes from the life of a boy who knows how to get on his mother’s nerves. Sure, he could use the toilet anytime he wants to around four or five years old. It’s just more fun to torment his mother by insisting on wearing a diaper and punishing her with bowel movements. He could be nicer to his younger sister, but getting a rise out of Mumsy is far more entertaining.
At least that’s how Eva views the situation. The reality might be quite different. Eva is nowhere near a reliable narrator. She constantly looks outward for someone to blame. One of the most disturbing images in the context of the film is when Eva walks Kevin in his stroller into the middle of a construction site so she doesn’t have to hear him scream. A minute later, he’s four or five years old and Eva is convinced the child has gone deaf from screaming too much. There is no moment of self-awareness that any potential damage could have been caused by jackhammer field trips for her own sanity. Eva wipes away her offenses as soon as she can lay blame on someone else.
The problem is that we don’t get to see these calculations at work. The first hour of the film is the world actually abusing Eva. She wakes up to find that someone has covered her house and car in red paint. A grieving mother splits her lip because “someone’s having a nice day.” She can’t walk down the street without someone staring at her and her son’s crimes are constantly laid at her feet.This is mixed with shots of a young Kevin rebelling against her. He won’t roll the ball. He won’t say “Mama” even though he can talk. He won’t eat properly, sit still, get dressed, or follow any rules at all. He’s painted as a hell spawn bent on destroying her life.
Then you realize that Eva really is insane and the story gets interesting. Once Tilda Swinton actually has a real scene partner–Ezra Miller as the teenage Kevin–and the film can focus on their relationship, it’s thrilling. Kevin has grown up to be the spitting image of his mother. He’s passive aggressive. He’s vindictive. He’s prone to random acts of violence and blaming everyone else for his problems. It’s not that he’s a sociopath by choice; he learned it from his mother. Or did he? The film wisely refuses to take a stand on that issue.
If We Need to Talk About Kevin shuffled the scenes around in the first ninety minutes, it could be a masterpiece. There is nothing to grab onto for the first ten or so minutes of the film. What does Eva at the La Tomatina festival have to do with the story at hand? Is it Eva’s safe place? Why doesn’t it recur later on then? As it stands, it’s just a bizarre scene with no bearing on the story being told.
It’s almost as if Lynn Ramsey didn’t know what she could get rid of from the novel. Two hours feels like the right amount of time for this story. It’s just not organized well enough to sell Eva as a character whose story needs to be told.
Thoughts? I hear the book is quite upsetting. Would it be worth reading to try to understand what was happening at all in the first hour of the movie? Sound off below with your thoughts on the book and the film. I’m don’t think I’m done with Kevin yet and I’d love to hear from you.