Guilt, Blame and Red Splattered Memories in a dark drama

Directed by Lynne Ramsey

We need to talk about Kevin, based on the bestselling novel by Lionel Shrivers, follows the quiet anguish of mother Eva in the aftermath of the mass murder committed by her son Kevin (played by Ezra Miller). Superbly portrayed by the talented Tilda Swinton, Eva is a woman haunted by her role as a mother of a child she feels a lack of maternal instinct for, and at the same time trying to live out the rest of her shattered life after the killings. As the film plays out, we see how Eva struggles to bring up her antagonistic son, and her belief that he is a deliberately malicious child whose behaviour increasingly becomes calculated and hostile. Looking back on her early life as both a woman and a mother, while simultaneously showing her current life being reduced to ‘That Mother’ of a killer, Eva shows how she tries to analyse back to Kevin’s childhood in order to find an explanation for what has happened.

And so the ‘nature versus nurture’ question is subtly woven in, always lapping at our minds in the periphery of the film as we try to decide: is Kevin a bad product of society, or is he, as Eva is constantly asserting for us to believe, someone with inherently wicked genes inevitably following a doomed path? This is an argument which is never resolved, due to the fact that nothing is black and white as it seems, and as Eva soon shows, neither party are entirely innocent of the final culmination which Kevin eventually reaches. While Kevin is shown as a difficult child, the position of blame does not lie squarely with him. We see how Kevin shows his malevolent side, refusing to interact and co-operate with his mother, damaging her various things in a cruel streak which goes beyond childish mischief, and his subtle taunts which he always presents throughout his life. We also see the games he plays; and how he targets Eva while presenting a facade of innocence and good-nature to his father, presumably to conceal his cruelty and as further acts of manipulation.

Yet at the same time, the film also cleverly draws our attention to Eva’s faults, how at times she appears self-obsessed, and how she, too, finds it hard to be motherly with her child. Quite frankly, Eva does not hide the fact that she does not like her child, and it is this which makes her views a little harder to trust, she is a mother who does not want to be one (cooing ironically to her son “Mommy was happy before Kevin came along.”). While the film primarily focuses on Eva, and what she is feeling and thinking, her life is always measured in relation to Kevin, while all other roles, as a wife, as a businesswoman, as a woman, all come second. While there are several issues from the novel which perhaps do not translate on the big screen in the same way, such as the Eva’s back-story before Kevin is born, and her relationship with her husband, there are others, however, which come across remarkably well. We feel the chilling anticipation as Eva tries to unsuccessfully bond with her son, which amplifies as he grows older, showing that this is not merely a phase that the two characters are going through. There is constant foreshadowing throughout the film, even as the film flashes back to the final event of the final killings throughout the film to remind us that this is not a story which will end well.

Symbolism, abstract images and metaphors abound in this film, and they are used cleverly to add to the eerie atmosphere which is continuously maintained throughout. We constantly see Eva wringing her hands, washing them, cleaning with her, symbolising her anguish and her desire to rid herself of the guilt which has been imposed on her. There is also the theme of the colour red running through the novel; from the very start of the film we see Eva drenched in red to foreshadow the horror which will come, and throughout these splashes of red serve as reminders of what will inevitably happen, as well as acting as markers for Eva’s and Kevin’s struggles with each other, and perhaps even showing the view the ambiguity of the story, and how morality is something which cannot be easily measured.
Similarly, there is constant mirroring between Kevin and Eva, further emphasising the fact that although their relationship is perpetually hostile, there are also too many similarities between the two which cannot be ignored, perhaps suggesting that one reason for their strained relationship is that they see something of themselves in each other and this is a truth which they push away.
There is always a creeping anticipation for viewers in this film, as outsiders we are aware of what will happen, yet there is still always a feeling that there is worse to come. This is made more disturbing by the tense and sometimes high-spirited music which feels out of place, at times too jaunty, and usually jarring, having the effect of making us feel uncomfortable and displaced, and perhaps representing the idea of false layering being used which is unable to conceal an unpleasant truth.

Ultimately, the character of Kevin, shown as clever, malicious, sinister, arrogant, is one which we are initially supposed to reject, as he has been rejected by his mother. His cruel behaviour and manipulative games make him someone difficult to like, and yet there are also brief moments of empathy or even sympathy for Kevin – we see his need for human company and his loneliness at times, and even perhaps a form of recognition for the reasons for his anger, which blurs the idea of blame as we wonder what made him the person he is. We need to talk about Kevin makes it clear from its very start that there are no happy endings, yet it still effectively acts as a psychological mystery, exploring the build-up to the events which take place. This film excellently explores the idea of morals, social values and the struggles of motherhood, and it is portrayed acutely by both of the protagonists of this film (as well as the actors who play them). While Kevin is still the child of this relationship, the normal workings of a family are far from glamorised here, we see disenchantment, pessimism and heartbreak from all parties involved. While this may seem a reason not to watch this film, I would strongly encourage the opposite, We need to talk about Kevin shows us the importance of human relationships and facing up to fears, and bravely brings to life those unspoken fears that parents as well as their children have; and forces us to question whether we make the child or whether the child makes us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.