20 April 2014
Lynne Ramsay’s 2011 We Need to Talk About Kevin is an experimental film. This unconventional thriller emphasizes expressionism over realism, style over stability, and emotion over reason. In large part, Ramsay’s avant-garde film captures how a mind processes (or does not process) trauma while wrought with guilt, grief, and fear. And, simultaneously, the film communicates to viewers, through its nonlinear narrative and skewed perspective, how one person’s actions have to power to irrevocably affect others’ lives; in this case Kevin’s actions and their lasting affect on Eva’s life.
What viewers put together from the nonlinear, sometimes non-coherent, narrative is that, from pregnancy, Eva (Tilda Swinton) had a contentious and strained (to be kind) relationship with her son, Kevin (Ezra Miller, as teenager). As a baby, toddler, child, and adolescent, Kevin is violent, indignant, and vile, but that depiction of Kevin comes from Eva’s perspective. Eva recognizes that her son’s disgusting behavior fixates on her; Kevin has a better relationship with his father, Franklin (John C. Reilly), Eva’s husband. When the couple welcomes a second child, Celia (Ashley Gerasimovich), Eva’s perspective suggests Kevin demeans and terrorizes his young sister, somewhat similar to his treatment of Eva. The film’s climax is when Eva’s memories reveal Kevin planned and executed a school massacre in his high school. Furthermore, the morning of the massacre, Kevin murdered Franklin and Celia in the family home. Subsequently, Kevin was arrested and, in addition to her family, Eva lost her job, home, community’s respect, and self-worth. Eva visits Kevin weekly.
The film is Eva’s point of view, and what becomes clear early on is that Kevin’s actions have forever altered Eva’s sense of self. Post-massacre, Eva finds it difficult to discern herself from Kevin; for Eva, trauma seemed to fuse Kevin’s identity with her own, complicating Eva’s perception of herself. The film communicates Eva’s struggle by replacing Kevin for Eva unexpectedly. For example, in one scene, when Eva walk up to a sink filled with water and dunks her face in it, viewers see Kevin’s face under the water, not Eva’s. Moreover, the film communicates this identity crisis through Eva and Kevin’s matching haircut and color. Because the film is Eva’s perspective, the audience sees the confusion Eva feels regarding her identity.
But, why does the trauma Kevin caused push Eva to lose her identity? The film suggests Eva sees Kevin in herself because she feels, somehow, responsibility for his horrendous actions. And, she feels this way because her community holds her responsible for Kevin’s crimes; Eva absorbs society’s feelings toward her. Repeatedly, neighbors attack Eva, and—just as she took all Kevin’s abuse—Eva accepts her community’s hatred for her; eventually, hating herself. Because the community cannot attack Kevin—and because, even if they could, Kevin, a psychopath, cannot feel remorse—Eva takes on the guilt for Kevin’s crimes. Because society demands it, Eva takes on Kevin’s shame, sorrow, and culpability, causing her to think of herself as villain, not victim.
Perhaps no other scene in the film highlights this idea better than the film’s opening, although, the opening sequence can only be truly appreciated retrospectively.
We Need to Talk About Kevin begins with Eva’s dream/nightmare. In this dreamscape, viewers start inside a darkened home, slowly gliding toward an open door which has sheer, white curtains hanging in front of it. The wind blows outside the open door, billowing the curtains, pushing them inside the home, toward viewers. The sound of a sprinkler is heard in the distance. Yet, before viewers get to the door, the scene cuts, jumping to an aerial shot on a large crowd of people. (The first of many abrupt cuts the film will make.) The sprinkler sound is gone; the sound of a cheering crowd replaces it. The people are standing outside, but packed together tightly. As the camera moves around the scene, cutting from and back to aerial perspectives, the audience notices that these people are covered in smashed tomatoes; this large group of people represents some type of a festival or event that has broken out into a massive, tomato-throwing food fight. Eva appears in the scene, arms outstretched, Christ-like, with several people carrying her in the same position Jesus took on the cross. She is smiling, reveling in the chaos. She is already covered in the red, sticky tomato residue, but her carriers dunk her in a small vat of smashed tomatoes. As Eva splashes, the sound in the background changes; it is no longer a crowd cheering; the sound is now more frightening, like the sound of terrified, hurt people panicking. Complimenting this sound, the camera cuts to splashes of red liquid, now seeming to symbolize blood splattering.
Eva wakes up. Outside, her home has been vandalized; people threw red paint all over her house, porch, and car.
This opening scene reveals that Eva’s greatest nightmare is what lies outside those billowing curtains, yet she will not go outside to see the grim reality of her husband and daughter’s murders because, instead, she takes responsibility for the crimes, making them far too painful to confront. Without looking out the door, Eva’s dream enters a new setting, the tomato festival. At first, she seems ignorantly unaware of the chaos around her, but as a crowd of people carry her deeper into the madness, eventually depositing her in a small pool of a sticky, red, blood-like substance, the tone changes. Entering the dream like Christ at Calvary, Eva is, figuratively, crucified for Kevin’s sins by a crowd of people who, symbolically, cover her in the blood her son shed. Reading Eva’s dream on this slant suggests Eva believes the world thinks Kevin’s crimes are her fault, and so she comes to view herself as villain.
Eva’s twisted self-perception is a repeatedly addressed as the film continues. In one of Eva’s memories, Celia’s guinea pig goes missing, and just as Eva tries to comfort her daughter while having a snack in the kitchen, Eva flips on the garbage disposal. Kevin had trapped the animal in this spot, making Eva—the one who flipped the switch—a murderer. As Eva realizes what is happening, with a look of shock painted across her face, the scene cuts to present-day Eva desperately trying to wash red paint off her hands. Symbolically, this red paint is blood; in this instance, the blood of Celia’s butchered guinea pig. The cut from memory to present-day once again identifies how Eva sees herself as responsible for Kevin’s actions, always and endlessly washing the blood her son is responsible for shedding off her own hands.
Even in the film’s climax, Eva’s memory of the day her son carried out the massacre at his school, Ramsay’s specific cinematic technique communicates to viewers that Eva sees herself as responsible for her son’s actions. As Eva stumbles around the high-school, sees Kevin arrested, comes home—only to find her family murdered— and finally retreats to her bedroom, the film cuts back to present-day Eva lying on her couch. The entire room is flooded with red light, completely covering Eva in red. This cut to present-day, in combination with the red lighting, show viewers that Eva feels responsible for Kevin’s actions. She feels as though the blood he shed is on her, figuratively speaking, and, perhaps because of that mentality, she mistakes herself for Kevin, the actual killer.
In the end, Eva only has one question for Kevin: Why? Kevin does not have an answer for her. There is no reason Kevin did what he did. And, there is no reason Eva takes on Kevin’s atrocities as her own. Kevin’s inability to answer Eva’s question is the only closure the film can offer; there is no resolution or recuperation in We Need to Talk About Kevin. The film discovered the fragmented memories and repressed life of a broken person who, in the end, viewers understand has completely lost her sense of self and will never be put back together again.