In Lynne Ramsay’s extraordinary adaptation of Lionel Schriver’s acclaimed novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, we see Tilda Swinton methodically scraping paint off her shabby clapboard house. The sight of Swinton speckled and daubed in splotches of symbolic red creates an eerie sense of foreboding. Who has splattered her house with paint? The neighbours seem to look at her with fear and suspicion. What’s the reasoning behind it? A woman slaps her in the face in public. What on Earth would drive someone to such action?
Demonstrating the kind of narrative dexterity that earmarks a filmmaker at the top of their game, Ramsay then shuffles the timeline of her film, as she puts the puzzle pieces into place. Swinton’s Eva it appears, is running from something that will always catch up with her. As the power of Ramsay’s eerie, uncomfortable film starts to take hold, jumping between past and present, it soon becomes clear that Eva is the mother of a son named Kevin. A son who has committed a heinous crime, which has proceeded to cast a dreadful pall over her life.
It’s the worst kind of maternal nightmare: what if you were to give birth to the archetypal demon child? Make no mistake, Ramsay’s film is not a horror in the strictest sense of the word, but it’s far and away the scariest film of the year because the fear is rooted very firmly in banal reality. Kevin’s upbringing is one of thousand yard stares, casual cruelty and, later as an adolescent, possible psychosis. Embodied by two very brilliant actors (Jasper Newell as a child; Ezra Kramer as a teen), Kevin quite simply doesn’t appear to love his mother. What can Eva do with a son who lacks that most elemental bond? Her sweet, sincere husband Franklin (John C Reilly) can do nothing but watch from the sidelines.
Lest the film fall into lopsided melodramatics, Ramsay cleverly filters the action through Eva’s point of view. This has the effect of unsettling us even more, raising ever more fundamental questions. First and foremost, we’re led to question whether Eva wanted to become a parent in the first place. A former free spirit who emerges in the film’s surreal opening scene at Spain’s Tomatina Festival, bathed in red matter and arms held aloft in a Crucifix-style pose, one senses she has lost a part of herself in giving birth to a son. An attempt at nostalgic indulgence for example (pinning maps of her travels on the walls of a room) results in spiteful, destructive action on Kevin’s part.
Consequently, the film is a completely subjective experience, which is perhaps Ramsay’s greatest achivement. Is Eva ultimately responsible for Kevin’s behaviour? Has she passed on this malaise genetically or is it all him? The film offers no easy answers but is guaranteed to stir up the whole nature/nurture debate like a nest of angry hornets. Swinton’s ethereal, striking features are an excellent fit for the character, a mother who we’re trying to work out just as she’s trying to work out her own son. It’s a fearless, soul-baring performance from an actress who specialises in them, and she gets excellent support from Kramer and Reilly.
Much like great literature (apt given the film is taken from a novel), Ramsay’s film abounds in rich, ironic contrasts, although she dispenses with the epistolary structure of Schriver’s book. Back in the present day as Eva drives home during Halloween, the presence of multitudes of laughing children becomes akin to mental torture. At a Christmas party, Wham’s Last Christmas is rolled out as expected but rarely has it carried such desparate, anguished connotations. The film is dotted with mini-masterstrokes such as these, but it’s even more satisfying to see how they coalesce into one painful, emotionally exhausting whole.
It’s a long-overdue return for the director who brought us the brilliant Ratcatcher. We may never know how Ramsay’s adaptation of The Lovely Bones would have worked out (although it arguably would have been better than Peter Jackson’s gaudy, Super Mario-esque mess) -but she has bounced back from that calamity with a masterpiece.