Film review – We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011)

We Need to Talk About Kevin: Eva (Tilda Swinton)
Eva (Tilda Swinton)

There’s little actual blood in We Need to Talk about Kevin, but director Lynne Ramsay’s pervasive use of the colour red makes sure that the idea of blood constantly remains in the audience’s mind. One of the most dramatic images comes at the start of the film where Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) is submerged in a sea of red while taking part in the Spanish tomato festival, La Tomatina. The red suggests both the birth of her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) and Kevin’s violence as a teenager. Covered in tomatoes, Eva is stained by Kevin’s actions, just as her house has been aggressively sprayed with red paint. The opening tomato festival scene also establishes Eva’s love for travel, freedom and adventure, all of which were taken away from her when Kevin was born. This plants the suggestion that Eva is wrestling with the possibility that Kevin became who he is because of her resentment towards him.

We Need to Talk about Kevin is set after Kevin’s violent actions with Eva living alone in a state of depression and borderline dereliction. Woven through the basic narrative involving Eva starting a new job and cleaning her vandalised house are her fragmented recollections of all the events that lead up to the day Kevin committed his horrific crime. The film is therefore deeply subjective and is comprised of a series of impressionist memories rather than flashbacks. The audience sees Kevin and his relationship with Eva through Eva’s eyes, resulting in a portrait of Kevin as an almost demonic, and certainly sociopathic, being who rejected his mother from even when he was a baby. It is telling that during the only major scene featuring Kevin in the present and non-subjective part of the film, he appears notably differently to how he is presented in Eva’s memories.

We Need to Talk About Kevin: Eva (Tilda Swinton) and Franklin (John C. Reilly)
Eva (Tilda Swinton) and Franklin (John C Reilly)

And yet, Eva’s guilt still intrudes, as the film is also full of moments where she is subconsciously questioning herself as a failed parent. There are several incidents where the nature of what may or may not have happened are deliberately left unresolved, further highlighting how Eva then concludes that Kevin is the one to blame. Not that the film suggests Kevin has been falsely accused or somehow justified in his actions, but it does raise plenty of nature versus nurture issues, even though it is not about attempting to reconcile that dynamic. Instead, it is a portrait of a woman living in a state of shock, guilt, emptiness and loss who is trying to process what went so wrong.

Many of the stylistic techniques that Lynne Ramsay has used in previous films are once more utilised in We Need to Talk about Kevin, but they work far better than they ever have before. The unconventional editing weaves Eva’s memories in with the present day scenes and the ironic music is genuinely chilling as it provides the soundtrack to a mild mannered suburban community that will never be the same. Close-ups on particular visual details and amplified sounds create a pattern of reoccurring visual and sound motifs that are effectively atmospheric, but then become emotionally charged when their full significance is revealed. In this way the motifs also function as sensory memories for Eva, further demonstrating how much what the audience experiences is filtered through her interpretation of events. We Need to Talk About Kevin is based on a novel, but Ramsay has made dramatic changes in structure and style for it to function as a film in the most effective way. Fretting about what’s been changed or what’s been left out is redundant and ignores its accomplishments as a film in its own right.

We Need to Talk About Kevin: Eva (Tilda Swinton) and Kevin as a toddler (Rocky Duer)
Eva (Tilda Swinton) and Kevin as a toddler (Rocky Duer)

This is sensory and visceral cinema at its most compelling and expertly crafted. You are thrown into the mind of a woman suffering unimaginable despair, self-loathing, anger and bewilderment. At times the tension and dread is close to unbearable, especially when the film begins to hint that it will show something that you really don’t want to see (and because it’s a film of such integrity, the horror comes from the idea of seeing something rather than explicitly seeing it). We Need to Talk About Kevin rivals Alien and Eraserhead for its nightmarish depiction of childbirth and parenthood. It’s a film that will make you want to scream, cry, be sick or punch something. Yet, you won’t be able to tear your attention away from it.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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  1. ***(Minor) spoiler warning***

    I loved We Need to Talk about Kevin and yes, it produces anguish, despair and sometimes just a little disbelief, given that Kevin is so disturbed you have to ask a ‘real-world’ question about a medical/psychiatric assessment of Kevin. Neverthless, the film also raises the issue of unconditional love, since Eva returns regularly to the prison where Kevin is incarcerated and the closing scene shows her hugging Kevin whom it is suggested in those closing scenes, may be either truly unhinged since he no longer can answer Eva’s question ‘Why’ or alternatively he is teetering on the brink of a realisation as to the forever consequences of his conduct. So again there flow from these closing scenes more questions, questions about the reality each of us inhabits, is what you see, hear and believe, what I see, hear and believe. Thanks for the review Thomas.

  2. This film was definitely hard to watch. I don’t think I recall any other film being so tense, and so inevitably moving toward doom, I just kept thinking to myself why doesn’t the husband see it? But reading your review where you clarify that we are seeing him through her eyes, it does make me question it. There’s so much to draw on from the film, its so raw and overwhelming, with the colour red just about everywhere, and the menacing look on Kevin’s young face in all scenes, with Tilda’s haunting eyes, like you said, couldn’t look away. Fantastic film.
    Side note: What did her co-worker say to her exactly at the Christmas party? I struggled to hear it, and I just want to know!

  3. I thought this was one of the best portrayals of how a child manipulates those around him, especially that of his mother who was never ready to be a mother in the first place.

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