Don’t usually think of quotes from former SWP leader, Tony Cliff, but on this occasion it seemed right. He said that he liked individuals in the family but it’s the ideology of the family he disliked. I agree and it made me think of that while watching Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin”.
I only read Lionel Shriver’s controversial book recently. The book just didn’t appeal to me when first published as it just sounded Columbine-esque replacing guns with bows and arrows and other assumptions I made. How wrong I was. The book fascinated me and it is far more intricate and perceptive (some say overwritten which I disagree with). A book written from the point of view of Eva Khatchadourian as she goes back and forward reliving her past through letters to her husband Franklin. I wondered how Ramsay would grapple with that aspect, would she have a formal voiceover? Fortunately, she goes for something better. Initially, according to Ramsay speaking at a Q&A session at the Curzon Soho, smashed up the book (on a literary basis) and constructed a screenplay from the remnants. Ramsay uses imagery in a very powerful and expressive form (see her previous films, “Ratcatcher” and “Morvern Callar”). Also Ramsay said that the film was made on a very tight budget.
Red being the colour that explicitly threads through the film, a very powerful device yet also subtle. The cinematography is outstanding. Kevin, her son, dominates the film, dominates her mind. The viewer isn’t some voyeur you are Eva. Living her life before and after Kevin’s murderous outrage. Tracing through the past jumping to the present the redness enveloping through her life; from the joyous tomato festival where you witness Eva so happy and contented to her obsessively scrubbing the red paint off her hands which has been chucked at her house.
As in the book we only see Kevin through her eyes, her point of view, no verification. Kevin exists as a composite of memories. You ask yourself, is this true? What I liked about Ramsay is the way she pared down the book yet the outline is still there. Eva’s relationship to Kevin, the screaming baby, the petulant child who refuses to be potty trained, the boy who destroys her map collection, the teenager she knows for certain blinded her daughter Celia. Eva’s fraught relationship with Kevin and her desperation to bond with him. Is Kevin an evil demon child or was he made that way through nurturing?
Franklin, the father who sees no fault in Kevin which inevitably has an impact on the dynamics of his relationship with Eva. Ramsay shows the couple living in a small cluttered apartment then they live in a very minimalist and spacious but rather alienating house (which Eva hated). Franklin plays the engaging Dad, the dedicated Dad who encourages Kevin with his archery.
What is also key to this film is the physical resemblance between Eva and Kevin who mirror each others behaviour. A wordless scene in the prison based on non-verbal communication is an excellent example of this. The dialogue is limited yet what makes it more powerful is the surreal and nightmarish imagery. Eva lying, sleepless, in bed hearing screaming, seeing literally red going backwards and forwards in time constantly reliving the gym incident. Living in her spacious family house, having her own business to the present of working by day in a gloomy travel agents to existing (cocooning herself) in a tiny house living in fear of next blood red splattering attack on her house.
The gym scene is very economically done, no gore, no over-the-top depiction, again it’s from Eva’s point of view as she doesn’t really know what happened. A very powerful scene is where Kevin is facing the gym, back to the viewer, bowing to an invisible audience.
There is so much wrapped up in this film, guilt being one of the significant emotions. Eva scurrying away from she sees the mother of one of Kevin’s victims, embarrassed and awkward when she meets one of Kevin’s victims. She visits Kevin without fail at the prison finally asking him on the second anniversary why he did what he did. His answer, “I thought I knew but not sure anymore”. Kevin goes from an arrogant nihilistic murderous teenager to a scared and vulnerable one. As the viewer, do you hate Kevin? Ezra Miller portrays him as an arrogant yet complex teenager, with many emotional masks, who rips through the bullshit of the family with a scythe. What I also found engaging about his film is that it makes you think, creates more questions than it answers. Along with an European director like Ramsay casting a directorial eye on what seems to be a specific American obsession regarding school massacres. I wonder what kind of film would have been made directed by an American?
Ramsay, with the mirroring of the characters, projects two people similar yet different, but not too different. Thankfully, Kevin isn’t depicted as a 1-dimensional monster. Ezra Miller plays him a teenager with contradictions, the guy who sees fake. Glaring and staring at Eva then snapping out of it when Franklin comes home, “Hey Dad, how was work”? All stereotypical family life, yet all fake (reminded me too of Holden Caufield’s emphasis on ‘phoniness’ in “Catcher in the Rye”). Ramsay picks out scenes that exemplify Eva’s and Kevin’s fraught relationship. The success of these scenes are down to the excellent acting of Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller, the physicality between the two is utterly noticeable. John C. Reilly as Franklin as the dependable father is well portrayed. Franklin, as well as Celia, are kinda ghosts that flitter through Eva’s memories.
Back to the quote from Tony Cliff. Watching the film made me think about the role of the family, the ideology of the family as opposed to nature/nurture. Eva throughout the book hankers after her life globe trotting, decides to have a baby with Franklin yet her resentfulness comes through as it is obvious she prefers to be a million miles away from Kevin. One particular scene is where Eva decorates a room of her home with maps and souvenirs from those times which Kevin destroys in a very Jackson Pollock manner.
Does he pick up on this resentfulness? Eva seen awkwardly holding screaming baby Kevin away from her while Franklin isn’t around a lot. Franklin plays the archetypal Dad, see no evil…..ignoring Eva’s concerns and worries while trusting Celia is in the background, polar opposite stoic as Eva bathes her eye socket, lost due to Kevin’s savagery, or was it? Eva is lost in this patriarchal sexual division of labour family set-up (resulting with the public anger at Kevin’s actions directed towards Eva the mother). Ramsay shows Eva’s desperation for independence yet trying to fulfill the maternal mother figure especially with Kevin. The ideology of the family and what it represents along with the contradictions. It is more about that than it is about nature/nurture. Or as someone in one of the Q&A sessions pointed out that this film is a great advertisement for contraception.