This one took forever to get to Philadelphia theaters. Like so many others, I loved Ramsay’s directorial debut – the haunting Ratcatcher. Also like others, I didn’t like her sophomore film, Morvern Callar, as much, though some moments (those flashing Christmas lights!) remain stuck in my head.
For all the hype about it’s non-linear structure, We Need to Talk About Kevin is easily Ramsay’s most accessible film. Falling somewhere between its surface-level Elephant meets The Omen roots, and The White Ribbon, it finds the director on much firmer narrative ground.
Through a fragmented narrative structure that flashes back and forth within an 18-year timeframe, Ramsay’s film is a hallucinatory thriller focusing on the build-up to and aftermath of a deadly high-school rampage.
Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) is convinced that her young son Kevin (played through the years by Rock Duer, Jasper Newell, and finally Ezra Miller) has a vendetta against her, despite her husband Franklin’s (John C. Reilly) protests otherwise. The intricate film gradually introduces Eva and Franklin’s second child, Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich). Celia is the polar opposite of Kevin in every way: she’s female, blonde, affectionate, and outgoing. As Kevin’s massacre at his Gladstone high school is intermittently revealed, it’s the relationships – brother-sister, husband-wife, and parent-child – that take on additional weight.
Without the aid of the usual signifiers to help the audience understand the timeline, Kevin takes pride in its non-linearity, hard-cutting across years and forcing the audience to keep up. But for all of the fragmentation, Kevin is Ramsay’s most accessible film yet, and her most traditionally conceived.
It’s Ramsay’s technique, a mixture of poetic movement, unbalanced framing, and a smattering of colors and lights, alongside the focus on Eva – rather than the obvious, on Kevin – that raises the film beyond other genre exercises or post-Columbine narratives.
Here are several stills from the film. Apologies for the distorted aspect ratios:
See a theme here? All of these push Eva to the right of the frame, filling up the rest of it with objects – a hospital lamp, paint on a wall, posters and chairs, soup cans – and giving equal weight to these objects. All four images are flatly composed, boxing Eva up against a wall. The second and last could be painted backdrops, taken from Pollock and Warhol, respectively. The color scheme changes from a cool blue (Kevin’s birth), to neutral, subdued yellow (Kevin as non-responsive rebel), to significantly less contrasty neutral (Eva trying to cope post-Kevin), to the most saturated (Eva confronted by Kevin’s actions). It’s this presentation that pushes the film to a richer level.
Swinton’s Eva is a hard-spun woman, independent and successful. There’s a very intentional doubling and comparison of Eva with Kevin, implying that the latter (read: his actions as well as his character), springs directly from the former in more ways than mother-son relationship. The doubling is enacted in a number of ways: a repeated shot of Eva dipping her face in water, where she “becomes” Kevin. Their matching haircuts:
The implications can be extended: is Eva herself so far from violence, or is Kevin so far from having been able to find a “normal” life?
We Need to Talk About Kevin isn’t a perfect film. Some of Kevin’s small acts of mayhem fall too far towards horror-film trope, and the constant furrowed eyebrow smirk directed at Eva behind Franklin’s back gets tired quickly. The cerebral sound design, a mixture of layered voices and ticking suspense cues also wears out its welcome.
Still, Ramsay steers Kevin away from exploitation by avoiding on-screen violence and by refusing to leave any question unasked. What promises to be the inevitable abrupt and ambiguous art-house ending is actually presented quite lucidly, with Eva seeing what the audience wants to see and asking what the audience wants to hear. This type of closure suits the crime, pushing the film almost towards procedural territory, but more so, it solidifies what becomes an ironic connection between Eva and Kevin.