We Need to Talk About Kevin Review: The Strangling Pain of Child Trauma

The recurring image of a curtain fluttering in the wind and the incessant, rhythmic beats from a sprinkler spigot produce a haunting opening synthesis  to a movie that makes our temples throb. Life changing events have this effect, containing elemental and easily re-playable images and sounds, ones that consistently repeat in stimulating the senses and taking us back to a particular moment. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, a movie about the mother of a son who goes on a killing spree at his high school, this specific fluttering image fits into that category, but unfortunately and painfully, so do many more.

The story is every parent’s worst fear, birthing a child that despises you the moment he enters the world, knowing when and where to attack the most precious, reserved mental states. The burdened mother is Eva (Tilda Swinton), a woman seen at different points in a sliced timeline, an effective method chosen by director Lynne Ramsay. The chronological alterations embellish the stark contrasts of life Eva experiences, a wanderlust and independent spirit whose nature bursts forth in spontaneous ways- seen thriving in unique Indian rituals and foreign cities.

Then the baby-bump emerges, subsidizing her pre-filial joy, and the compressing confines of maternal responsibility corner Eva into an unenthused, but inevitable motherly role. It may just be Swinton’s bony, pale appearance, but garnering sympathy for her is a challenge. Yet, once little Kevin arrives, we can’t help but share the weight of a woman who must endure endless crying whenever she comes near him. In one almost comical scene, Eva strolls Kevin, bawling outrageously, up to a man using a jack-hammer, the loud machine drowning out the sobbing and giving her an ironic calming pleasure. She attempts to play ball, takes him to the doctor, but his persistence to object to her will forces Eva to sardonically muster up quips like, “I could be in Paris right now.” Ramsay suggests some frightening realizations and poses difficult questions about the struggles of parenthood. What if we do not really love our children? What if they don’t choose to love us?

Kevin grows up into an 8-year old (Jasper Newell) and his speaking ability unleashes a more damaging side. His harsh vocabulary however is not displayed towards his father Franklin (John C. Reilly), the pudgy, happy-go-lucky kind of guy to perfectly complement his austere-looking wife. Kevin refuses to get toilet-trained and mimics his mother’s requests. The arrival of his sister Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich), though it temporarily provides some household levity, quickly becomes another outlet for Kevin’s demoniacal means.

Franklin and Celia portray a noticeable dichotomy with Eva and now a teenage Kevin (Ezra Miller), whose squinted eyes, pale face, and sharp features directly resemble the mother he loathes. Franklin’s nonchalance and general obliviousness to his son’s attitude only adds to the extreme tension- inducing a nature versus nurture argument. The rotating chronology splits the upbringing narrative with depressing portraits of Eva after the Columbine-like incident. Ramsay gives us the aftermath, the precursor, and the before, jumbled with surprising clarity but is careful enough to still invoke shock and surprise just when we think we know where the story heads.

The snapshots of Eva after the tragedy display the disheveled life that awaits her. Encounters at the grocery store and her new job as a

Tilda Swinton in “We Need to Talk About Kevin”

travel agent create a dark complexion to dreams of yesteryear and her unparalleled reality. The screen is saturated with red, between Eva’s glasses of Merlot and the batch of crimson paint, sadistically thrown on to the front of her home by a presumable angry mob. Much of her time consists of painstakingly scrubbing out this red reminder on the porch; she becomes a modern-day Lady Macbeth, devastatingly erasing the damned, dirty spot. It’s a grueling performance by Swinton who emphasizes the eternal weight and solace after this type of tragedy. How do you re-piece your life amidst other mothers’ own sense of loss and subsequent verbal and physical attacks?

Ramsay, along with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey , deserve credit for blending a sometimes incommunicable tale within a suburban atmosphere. The camerawork is shot with an intentional perspective, attempting to delve deeper into the mind of someone as opaque as Kevin. This gets aided by a musical score, organic sounds, circulating and triggering memories, that also consists of ironically cheerful tunes, maybe a sense of what motherhood should have been like.

We Need to Talk About Kevin beautifully attacks the multiple facets present in a rarely examined tragedy case. It’s mother lens focuses deeply and intently on the arc of one woman’s life, splintered in both her mental state and how the film is shot. It answers a certain amount of questions but also beckons many more- some that may never be fully answered, and others that probably can’t.

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3 responses to “We Need to Talk About Kevin Review: The Strangling Pain of Child Trauma

  1. Director Lynne Ramsay’s first narrative feature in nine years is uncomfortably tense but worth savoring, particularly because of Tilda Swinton’s devastating lead performance. It’s dark, grim, and very disturbing, however, I could not take my eyes off of it. Great review. Check out mine when you get the chance.

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