Monday, 24 October 2011

'We Need to Talk About Kevin' review:

If we accept that it exists at all, is evil born or is it made? If a teenager commits mass murder, should we blame the parents or society or the media or some innate badness that lurks inside of the individual? Whilst not addressed explicitly, these questions are at the forefront of Scottish director Lynne Ramsay's long awaited third feature, 'We Need to Talk About Kevin': an adaptation of Lionel Shriver's novel, starring the inimitable Tilda Swinton as Eva, whose sociopathic son Kevin (Ezra Miller) massacres students and teachers at his high school.

Told from the perspective of Eva, Ramsay's film is less concerned with the troubled Kevin and his motivations than it is with the effect the ordeal - and the boy's almost equally traumatic upbringing - has had on his mother. Routinely attacked and insulted on the street - with her house and car vandalised at the film's start - it's only a slight exaggeration to say that Eva's life is a living hell, not least because she lives with the knowledge of what her son has done and seems willing to accept society's judgement of her. Even as a toddler, Kevin prefers his more natural and easygoing father (John C. Reilly) to his reluctant mother, a best selling travel author who is suddenly housebound by an unwanted baby.

Ramsay tastefully avoids depicting the horrific event itself (or indeed many of the preceding horrific events), but even so she manages to make even the most banal instances (a drive through suburbia, a trip to the supermarket) intense and frightening throughout. This has a lot to do with punchy editing, jarring musical choices and a stand out performance from relative unknown Miller.

If Christopher Nolan ever wanted to bring back the Joker in his Batman films, Miller with his contemptuous eyes and debauched grin would be the perfect candidate to replace the late Heath Ledger. He still looks intelligent and sinister even when he is called upon to look void of emotion. For much of the film Kevin is something of an emotional black hole, showing neither joy nor sorrow and incapable of empathy or compassion. Near the end, whilst he awaits transfer to an adult prison, we witness his only show of emotion by virtue of the fear in his eyes. Until that point it's tempting to conclude he isn't human but some sort of demonic force - a divine punishment for Eva's seeming lack of a maternal instinct.

'We Need to Talk About Kevin' is a masterclass in terms of the creation of anxiety, but for me at least the question of what the film is really about remains. The product of a collaboration between three distinctive and highly celebrated female artists (Swinton, Ramsay and Shriver), I'd hesitate to say the film is about what can happen if a career woman forsakes a traditional motherly role - surely that's not the intention here? I'd certainly hope not. But if Eva is not being held responsible by the film, which draws frequent parallels between her behaviour and Kevin's, then are we left with this uncomfortable - and I think dishonest - idea of innate "evil"?

If looked at as an exploration of Kevin's motivations the film is weak and the conclusions trite: he plays violent video games and is inspired to violence by the lure of being on television. Instead it works best as a look at how society reacts to a mother in this situation - you need only look at how the media is especially vitriolic against female murderers as opposed to their male counterparts - and how she comes to see herself. The backflashes which scour Eva's past, from the opening (pre-Kevin) scene of blissful content at the Tomatina festival in Spain to the height of her disconnect with Kevin as a teenager, are perhaps examples of this mother's own futile search for answers.

'We Need to Talk About Kevin' is out now in the UK and it is rated '15' by the BBFC.

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