With Tilda Swinton’s soul-splintering performance as the mother of a high-school psychopath, Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin is killing me. Softly.
Three Colours Red by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
It’s almost ten years since Lynne Ramsay’s last film, but with an aborted adaptation of The Lovely Bones, there’s a pattern emerging. Like Morvern Callar and Alice Sebold’s novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin is based on a novel focusing on morality and death, centred around the awe-inspiring performance of a brilliant actress. And while Ramsay’s style isn’t always immediately recognisable in the crane shots over the tomato festival in Buñol or the Warholian tomato soup aisle, a few flashes of Ramsay’s enigmatically atmospheric style remain, such as Ramsay’s inimitable close-ups or the all-drenching red light from the paint on her windows which recalls Morvern Callar‘s twinkling Christmas fairy lights. And while Ramsay may have given us a short shrift on atmosphere, We Need To Talk About Kevin has emotion in spades.
Dropping the correspondence format of Lionel Shriver’s novel, Lynne Ramsay nevertheless offers us a fractured story of her own, piecing together the life story of Eva Khatchadourian from the blissful freedoms of youth, through nervous motherhood to guilt-laden post-traumatic existence, all neatly demarcated by the length of Tilda’s hair. But more importantly, it’s a story that’s coloured red – the joy of independence and travel encapsulated in an emotional exuberance of ripe fruit wallowing at La Tomatina, which by the end has been crushed and sealed into tins. All innocence lost. The post-massacre present is a painful place of red-eye memories and hard graft, wiping the vindictive paint from her door, porch and stoop. Again and again, she soils herself in this worldly blame, striving to scrub away the guilt, to make sense of the past and to work out where she went wrong.
How do you make sense of a tragedy like the massacres at Virginia Tech or Columbine High? And as a mother, how do you love the son that killed your husband and daughter? Futile questions. But part of the endless torment that plagues Eva, as she struggles to live something approaching a normal life. Every day she has to accept and embrace the pain, the slap in the street and the broken eggs. With no right to complain or respond with anything other than “Fine” when asked how she is, and no right to see red when she’s called a stuck-up bitch by her colleague Colin – a scapegoat and pariah, normal rules don’t apply. She’s a woman bereft of everything – family, house, business, happiness and self. Reduced to a numb existence, kept alive only by memories and self-recrimination.
Like Rosemary’s Baby, the horror in We Need To Talk To Kevin stems from maternal angst. No sooner is Kevin born than mother and child are driven apart – first by his incessant screaming, then his refusal to talk, play or potty-train. Exasperated, Eva begins to believe Kevin has a personal vendetta against her – a suspicion confirmed by his neatly divisive and sweetly contrived attentions towards his father. Her mother’s anguish turns irreversibly into guilt and mistrust when she accidentally breaks his arm, infuriated by his spiteful insolence. The only moment of affection is a brief illness where he nestles into her arms to be read to – this time the father the victim of his gruff rejection.
As frightening as the various incarnations of Kevin are, We Need To Talk About Kevin is Tilda Swinton’s film. He’s a blank canvas – inexplicably bitter, withdrawn and obsessively neat. Poisoned with a Y generation cynicism that heads off all possible affection with a know-all tirade on the transparency of parental love, “So now you want to ask me about school, sex and drugs?” His sociopathy suitably high-tech and ironic, encapsulated in a death-to-all-computers CD labelled “I love you”. Tilda Swinton, on the other hand, is a maelstrom of emotions, of repressed hatred, frail love and unspoken vindication in a gripping and awe-inspiring performance that seethes and simmers, offering no release until the final credits roll.
If anything, Tilda Swinton’s performance is almost too generous, too loving, unnecessarily exculpated by the script. There’s a cold edge to her which ripples onto the surface during their round of crazy golf – an unfeeling “So, you won” as she downs putter and strides away. And inheriting this harsh coldness from his mother, they are connected by a disavowed but indissoluble bond. She the only survivor of his rampage; kept alive with sadistic pleasure, preferring to punish her than to shoot her.
But as both a novel and a film, We Need To Talk About Kevin is careful not to explain Kevin’s psychosis or offer trite solutions. The best we get is perhaps an analogy for obesity – you’re fat because you eat, ergo you kill because you’re filled with hate. Yet still, the question of ‘nature or nurture’ lingers over the film like an indelible paint stain. And in the end, the only way of understanding the abject meaninglessness of this tragedy is in the microscopic glimpse of breast cancer cells dividing; it’s neither nature nor nurture but an unstoppable and growing illness. Tense, tender and beautifully devastating, Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin is an emotional tour-de-force which leaves you gasping for breath.
We Need To Talk To Kevin is released in the UK on 21st October 2011