Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin dwells upon the worst case scenario of both giving birth and raising a child. Shriver’s novel depicts some of the most abhorrent facets of human nature, questioning whether evil is inherent or is borne out of an unloving environment or relationship. Marking a return for director Lynne Ramsay after a nine-year hiatus, Ramsay’s direction, both clinical and highly visceral, wonderfully captures the mood Shriver’s novel instilled in its reader.
Eva Khatchadourian (a sublime Tilda Swinton) enjoys a blessed life travelling as a researcher for her travel-based company, each time returning to a loving husband (John C. Reilly). In a moment of misguided love and lust, Eva purposely chooses to conceive a child: it is the implications of this child that forms the basis of the ensuing narrative.
We see Eva staring at herself in the mirror rubbing her stomach, which now harbours something alien and possibly unwanted. After a difficult pregnancy, Kevin is born, whilst his father Franklin is immediately enamoured with their child, Eva struggles to connect. Kevin is soon revealed to be, in Eva’s presence, an unresponsive, complex child: wearing nappies far past the usual stage, Kevin watches Eva as she once again changes his maliciously soiled nappies.
At the basis of Shriver’s novel is the question of Kevin’s behaviour – is it an inherent personality defect, or a constructed reaction to an unfeeling mother? Certainly the unreliability of Eva’s narration in Shriver’s novel leaves this up to the viewer – this unreliability is difficult to translate onscreen, thus the autonomy of Eva’s memories leaves the viewer with little reason to question her recollections.
Swinton, as mentioned, is wonderful as Eva, capably ensuring that a rather cold character remains at all times entirely empathetic. Ezra Miller as the eponymous Kevin is quite perfect, remaining ever compelling, despite or perhaps because of, the atrocity of his actions. His final scene, addressing his mother as he prepares to move on, truly displays the depth of Miller’s performance: changing from assured surely teen, to the child he really is.
Ramsay’s film deeply unsettles: its continued colour motifs both herald and reflect back to Kevin’s actions, a flash of bright colour in an otherwise sombre palette. Ramsay, wisely, does not depict the violent nature of Kevin’s actions, despite their prolonged description in the source text. This decision not only avoids detracting attention from Eva, but in a sense increases the nature of his crime: our own imagination creates events out of the little information we are afforded, surely creating a far worse sequence of events than the reality.
Ramsay’s film creates a work of art in its own right, not simply derived from its source material, her vision is very much her own account and all the more impressive for it.