We Need to Talk About Kevin
Directed by Lynne Ramsay
Oscilloscope Pictures

Then she has an accidental pregnancy. The son she reluctantly produces goes on to become a Columbine-style killer. A film with this narrative might be a psychological account of how hateful mothers ruin their children and turn them into monsters. Or it might be a horror movie about the evil seed, if you will, the “spawn of Satan,” a precociously malevolent spirit whose evil has no explanation in this world. But a horror movie for adults, no matter how cleverly written and brilliantly acted, seems to me some version of an oxymoron. And that is what Swinton and writer-director Lynne Ramsay have given us.We Need to Talk about Kevin is a story about a second-generation Armenian American woman, Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), who is happy and successful in her career as a travel writer, entrepreneur, and lecturer. She has some culturally inspired ambivalence about not having a child, but she feels no compelling need to have one, or to spend the most productive years of her life in the boring “shit” work of childcare.

There is a chillingly gruesome scene in the middle where Ramsay opts for horror. Eva suspects that the teenage Kevin (Ezra Miller), while supposedly minding his little sister, has intentionally poured lye in her eye. Kevin sits at the dining table with his mother and father, Franklin (John C. Reilly). The parents have been locked in conflict since he was born. Eva has always believed that there is something terribly wrong with her son; his obstinacy and wilfulness as an infant have become a scheming malevolence in his adolescence. Franklin, on the other hand, sees the world in timeworn platitudes that reinforce his denial: Eva is exaggerating; Kevin is just a boy. Franklin even suggests that if there are problems, they are Eva’s fault.

That denial is unshakable. Franklin insists that it must have been an accident and that Eva is to blame for not locking up the product. The little girl’s eye has to be surgically removed. The next day Franklin wants Eva to reassure Kevin that it’s not his fault, to admit that he is not responsible, and to thank him for calling the ambulance. Eva can barely contain her rage and hatred for her son. Seated at the table with her family, she rebels against her husband and blames Kevin for condemning his sister to wear a glass eye the rest of her life. The scene signals the end of her marriage, and the audience, having witnessed everything from Eva’s point of view, are on her side.

Not that the plot has been easy to follow. Ramsay serves up a hodgepodge of nonlinear sequences that disdain narrative clarity and celebrate the phenomenon of Tilda Swinton rather than defining the character of Eva Khatchadourian. Those who haven’t read the 2003 novel on which the film is based will be left bewildered.

Still, we know that Franklin is a fool and that Eva’s suspicions are justified. Under Ramsay’s direction the gruesome details are implied rather than depicted. Having spared us the horror of watching Kevin pour a caustic drain cleaner in his sister’s eye, Ramsay gives us the scene at the table, a sophisticated symbolic re-enactment. The warring parents sit at either end, each in a different psychological world. The smug Kevin sits in the middle calmly peeling a fresh lychee. He is, if anything, amused by his parents’ conflict. This is a moment he savors. He neither demonstrates human feelings of guilt nor expresses concern for his sister. Totally removed from the family crisis, he focuses with almost erotic relish on peeling the lychee. Eva bristles with resentment at this provocation and interjects, “You don’t even like lychees.” Undeterred, Kevin sucks and chews with exaggerated pleasure on the pulpy white fruit and explains that it is an acquired taste. Ramsay’s camera cuts to a grotesque screen-filling close up of the handsome Kevin’s suddenly ugly snout. The lips smack and droplets of lychee juice squirt from his mouth.

In the judgment of Eva’s 21st-century neighbors, evil is brought into the world by bad mothering.

I confess I did not understand it at the time, but the image of the snout stuck in my mind. It seemed quite inappropriate to the narrative and out of cinematic context. But like a dream image that at first makes no sense and then seemingly unravels its own meaning, the significance of the scene became obvious: Kevin is symbolically and sadistically enacting his crime in a language that only his mother would understand. That lychee is his little sister’s eye; he has acquired a taste for sadism.

The novel not only confirms that ghastly interpretation of Kevin the eye-eating cannibal, but the little sister’s glass eye becomes his evil talisman after he kills her and his fool of a father and embarks on a day of high school slaughter. The only innovation to the massacre in this film is that Kevin does it all with a bow zand arrow.

This is not a horror film for naive teenagers who take pleasure in being frightened. The over-the-top horror they might enjoy happens off camera. Kevin’s surreal horror is cloaked in high art and aimed at sophisticated audiences. I found it gruesome, and watching it seemed a degrading experience.

The novel got off to a rough start. Author Lionel Shriver lost her agent over the book and could find no American publisher. In desperation she sent it on her own to a small British house that knew her work and agreed to bring it out. With almost no publicity or advance, the book caught on by word of mouth, made it onto the British best-seller list, and sold more than a million copies. Eventually it earned the Orange Prize, recognizing the contributions of women to literature.

Yes, Lionel Shriver is a woman. As a tomboy of fifteen, she rejected her given name of Margaret in repudiation of confining gender stereotypes. In Kevin she attacks what she considers one of the most sacred of those stereotypes: that women have a maternal instinct that makes them bond with their children at birth, and that caring for infants is natural and gratifying for them. Eva finds childcare boring, even repulsive, and she is bad at it. But Kevin is not just a difficult infant to care for; behind the incessant squalling, Eva senses an evil directed at her. Still, she worries it is all her fault, as Franklin suggests.

As I watched the film and later skimmed the novel, I kept wondering why Shriver is such an esteemed writer in England. Her epistolary novel is certainly a clever page-turner, but it does not even aspire to great literature. Was it just that she had, as she described it, broken the sacred taboo about the maternal instinct and put in words what many women feel? Perhaps that was an important part, but it seems that this film and book also play to the prejudices that educated Brits have about Americans. In the novel Franklin is not just a see-no-evil fool; he is a Republican who lives the un-examined life. And Eva is not only a victim of Franklin’s patronizing stupidity. In the wake of Kevin’s cold-blooded killings, she is also despised and tormented by her ignorant, self-righteous suburban community. Middle-aged women physically assault her on the street; vandals splash red paint on her home and car; angry parents of the murdered children bankrupt her in legal fees as she defends herself in lawsuits claiming that her neglect “caused” Kevin’s violence. This is an American nightmare that must have appealed to a segment of the British intelligentsia, including those at the BBC who first serialized the novel on the radio and then used British lottery money to launch the film project. Indeed it seems in every respect a British film about life in America that says more about their prejudices and pretensions than ours. The British were so pleased with the result that their bookies were offering 6-1 odds that Kevin would win the Palme d’Or at Cannes last May. The film came home with nothing.

In December it opened in the United States in time to qualify for the Oscars, and Swinton went to California to flog the film. Clearly she is worried about the American reception, and with good reason. Art house audiences are not going to rush out to the Cineplex to see a horror film even with her as the star.

Swinton worked simultaneously on this and two other films, I Am Love and Julia. In each she is not just the star, but also the larger-than-life presence that lends weight and heft. It was a late decision for her to take on the role of Eva. The original plan was to make the film more about place and external context. But the budget was insufficient, so it became more a film about Eva’s internal experience; thus Swinton was cast in the role.

But if she lends heft to those other works, here her weight unbalances. Kevin opens at La Tomatina, the tomato-throwing festival in Spain. Filmed unforgettably from above, it portrays a stunningly erotic mosh pit of half-naked bodies, wallowing in the smashed bits of overripe tomatoes. Then at this primitive rite, the goddess arrives. The “majestic” body of Swinton splayed like Christ on the cross and dressed in white is carried above the crowd by willing hands. Her face shines with the ecstasy of the Spanish experience, but even Swinton finds it difficult to give us the face of ecstasy when being splattered with tomatoes.

Still, it is a memorable cinematic moment appropriate for the charismatic actress. But does it ring true and help us understand Eva? Even with her hair dyed black, Swinton looks neither American nor Armenian. Instead of Swinton becoming the character in the film, Eva becomes Swinton. Swinton gives her all to the martyred victim in the rest of the film, but always seems out of place.

Ramsay, who, before Kevin, had not made a feature film in nearly ten years, is best known in the United States for Ratcatcher, a gritty genre movie. In Kevin she is more artistically ambitious, but the result is heavy-handed. The overripe red of the tomatoes takes a sinister turn as a theme of her film: the red of spilled blood, the red paint splattered over Eva’s house and car, a mysterious red stripe that briefly appears on her face, and, yes, red as in the scarlet letter. There is even a scene in the supermarket where Eva, hiding from a neighbor, stands in front of shelves of Campbell’s tomato soup (an homage to Andy Warhol’s America). These red references seem more like overreaching amateurism than sure-handed originality. Eva is always the innocent victim, a modern Hester blamed for her son’s sins. In the fifteenth century, it was thought that evil was brought into the world by women who had sex with the devil. In the judgment of Eva’s 21st-century neighbors, evil is brought into the world by bad mothering. But since we see everything from Eva’s point of view, her neighbors, even those whose children have been killed, seem like stupid, self-righteous Americans.

It would, however, be unfair to the film and to Ramsay to neglect what I believe is the most intriguing theme in Kevin, almost subliminal in character. At one point Eva submerges her face in a basin of water that we see from below. As she lifts her head out of the basin, her dripping-wet face becomes Kevin’s. That image tells us that it is not just a question of bad mothering or Satan incarnate. This mother sees something of herself in her satanic son and finally realizes that she was the audience for whom he had staged all of his gruesome performances.