December is a month of peace on Earth and goodwill towards men, so of course this week our 52 Films by Women focus is on one of the most upsetting, emotionally jarring movies ever made, because 2016 is just that kind of year. We need to talk about We Need to Talk About Kevin. STEEL YOUR EMOTIONS.
Based on the book by Lionel Shriver, Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk about Kevin stars Tilda Swinton as the impressively named Eva Khatchadourian. We meet Eva as a broken woman—timid, living alone, getting through each day on the strength of pills or booze, loathed by her neighbors for some unknown reason, and clearly suffering from some hardcore emotional trauma.
But step back—that’s not actually the first we see of Eva. The movie opens on a younger version of the character, a long-haired and care-free world traveler, taking part in Buñol, Spain’s annual tomato-throwing festival. She presents a striking figure: joyous, relaxed, and covered in blood. That’s what it looks like, anyway.
Such is We Need to Talk About Kevin—a movie that, with its unsettling visuals, vivid shocks of color, and shifting timelines, keeps its viewers in a mounting state of unease. From the first frame to the last, you know what you’re looking at is dreadful, but it’s also riveting. The story of Eva is a trainwreck you can’t look away from, inevitable and brutal.
In many ways, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a horror movie about motherhood. The basics are these: Eva used to be a successful travel writer until, as often happens, life intervened. She met a man (John C. Reilly). She got married, had a child, unwillingly moved from the city to the suburbs. From the beginning, Eva and her son Kevin were at odds. And I mean the beginning. Take this shot of Eva with other pregnant mothers.
Their bellies are exposed, proud. Their happy chattering belies an excitement about their impending motherhood. Eva, fully clothed, comes across as ill-at-ease, almost repulsed. Everything about this brief yet potent moment practically screams “what is this thing that’s growing inside of me? Why is my body not mine anymore?” Later, post-unspecified trauma, Eva drives home and comes across a band of trick-or-treaters. They don’t do anything particularly scary. They’re just kids. But Ramsay films them like threatening spectres, surrounding Eva, flitting in and out of her vision. The theme is established early on: children as a source of terror.
Once Kevin is born, things don’t get easier for Eva. She resents the effect her child has had on her life and finds herself unable to connect with him. Unlike her husband, she doesn’t have an easy way with children. But even apart from that, Kevin is… off. He combative from a young age, but in a way that’s less “normal toddler” and more actively vindictive. To Franklin, Kevin—played by Rock Duer as a toddler, Jasper Newell as a young child, and finally Ezra Miller as a teen—is sweetness and light. But behind his father’s back, this budding sociopath delights in goading Eva into lashing out. That’s the source of all his deviant behavior, up to an including his brutal final act. It’s not like his mother loves him, or even likes him. Her anger and her fear, in his mind, are all he’s ever going to get. He’ll take it.
For all that Eva and Kevin are constantly at odds with one another, they’re still tied together by a cycle of recrimination and… well… being mother and son. You can’t choose your family, but you also can’t escape it. Their is unhealthy, but it’s also close, the closest relationship in either one of their lives. Eva’s the only one who really knows Kevin the way he is, as opposed to the way he pretends to be for everyone else. The reverse is true, as well. What Ramsay shows us all throughout Kevin, through visual storytelling rather than clunky dialogue, is how similar Kevin and Eva are.
They have the same mannerisms. They’re both judgmental and callous. We see the story through Eva’s eyes as she deals with a frightening, uncontrollable child who refuses to ever do what she asks. But sprinkled throughout the movie Ramsay gives us glimpses of the relationship as Kevin must see it. His mother is unloving, cold, and perpetually critical. She doesn’t really care about him and never has. Eva rants at her uncomprehending toddler son, her voice escalating from baby talk to an angry shout: “Mummy was happy before widdle Kevin came along. You know dat? Now Mummy wakes up every morning and wishes she were in France.” Later, Eva makes a token effort to bond with Ezra Miller’s Kevin by taking him to mini-golf. (Because what teenage boy doesn’t love going to mini-golf with his mother in the dead of winter?)
Eva: Whenever I see fat people, they’re always eating. Don’t give me any of this ‘slow metabolism, it’s my glands’ crap. It’s food. They’re fat because they eat the wrong food. Too much of it and all the time.
Kevin: You know, you can be kind of harsh sometimes.
Eva: You’re one to talk.
Kevin: Yeah, I am. Wonder where I got it?
There are no easy answers in We Need to Talk About Kevin, no clean-cut relationships, no pat parables. The whole movie is about tearing those down, a peppy, folksy soundtrack—Lonnie Donegan’s “Ham N’ Eggs” and Wham!’s “Last Christmas”—belied by the horrors unfolding on-screen. Ramsay has crafted a bona fide masterpiece, but it’s not one that’s easy to watch. Kevin is a violent psychopath who does horrible things. Eva fears him. She’s been hurt by him. She’s responsible for him. She caused him. And in the end, she’s still his mother.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is available on Netflix, iTunes, and Amazon Video.