British director Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin, deals with a high-school massacre, raising uncomfortable questions about family and adolescence, as MARK FISHER discusses in his review. (The film is now available on DVD from Oscilloscope Pictures.)
“We couldn’t use fucking Coke, we couldn’t use Campbell’s Soup cans.” So said Lynne Ramsay of her remarkable adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need To Talk About Kevin. As a result of this excision of brand names which didn’t wish to be associated with its controversial subject matter, the film is marked by a kind of negative product placement. Accordingly, it’s set in a kind of alternative America, an America, you might say, that is the exact inverse of the country invoked by the magical rituals of advertising. Here, the family is not the gently glowing space where parents find the meaning in their lives, mothers do not always bond with their children, but teenagers—they kill other teenagers.
Shriver famously had difficulties getting the novel published because prospective publishers worried about the novel’s lead character, Eva, being “unsympathetic.” Being an “unsympathetic character” in effect seems to mean not being the sort of woman who looks as if she belongs in the magical kingdom of advertising. In both the novel and the film, Eva is more than capable of eliciting readers’ and the viewers’ sympathy. What provokes discomfort is, rather, her very capacity to do so. Eva is “unsympathetic,” not because we cannot relate to her, but because she expresses “unacceptable” attitudes towards motherhood. “Now that children don’t till your fields or take you in when you’re incontinent,” Shriver has her write in the novel, “there is no sensible reason to have them, and it’s amazing that with the advent of effective contraception anyone chooses to reproduce at all.” Worse even than expressing open hostility toward being a mother, Eva feels ambivalence. Eva’s supposed “coldness” amounts to a deficit in the over-performance of feeling and attachment demanded by the currently dominant emotional regime.
We Need To Talk About Kevin is a mother’s horror story, or a horror story about motherhood. One could say it is every mother’s worst fear (or one of them, a parent’s life being hardly lacking in worst fears); or, conversely, that it is the wish-fulfilment fantasy for those who choose not to have children (why shouldn’t this happen to any parent?). In the novel, Eva refers to both Alien and Rosemary’s Baby, but these cinematic precursors are about the horrors of pregnancy; in We Need To Talk About Kevin, the real horror only ensues after a child’s birth.
We Need To Talk About Kevin is about the aftermath of a Columbine-style shooting at a school in a small American town. It focuses on, and is entirely focused through, Eva (Tilda Swinton), the killer’s mother, and her attempts to come to terms with what her son, Kevin, has done. Eva is persecuted—her property is covered in red paint, she is struck in the street—as if she, rather than her son, was really responsible for the atrocity. Eva herself somewhat shares this judgement, not least because Kevin’s violence does not entirely come as a shock to her. She has long suspected him to be either psychopathic or evil.
Perhaps the principal difference between film and novel consists in the shift from the first-person perspective of the book, in which Eva tells her story in the form of letters to her husband. The epistolary structure of the novel gives us Eva (and all her evasions and self-deceptions) from inside, whereas the film’s eschewal of voiceover means that much of what we learn about Eva we glean from studying her facial expressions and her body postures. In a film that is many ways about the failures and inadequacies of verbal communication, Swinton’s rightly praised performance consists in large part in the way that she deploys the angularity of her face and body to convey misgivings and trauma that are never spoken.
An obvious comparison is Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, another film about a Columbine-style massacre, but Ramsay’s film is very different. Elephant ends with the atrocity, with Van Sant’s camera following the two killers with the same cool implacability with which it had earlier tracked their victims’ uneventful walks through the school corridors. Kevin’s killings, meanwhile, are the absent, invisible center of Ramsay’s film. By contrast with Elephant’s oddly diffident lyricism, We Need To Talk About Kevin’s expressionistic naturalism has a roiling, post-traumatic nonlinearity. It discloses its narrative fitfully, in snatches and gobbets that make sense only gradually, like the confused speech of a concussion victim. The film cuts with all the manic desperation of an insomniac brain seeking to take refuge from a horror that has contaminated everything. For Eva, there is no escape in the past; every memory becomes part of a cryptic causal sequence that always culminates in the killings. What was the root of the violence? And what role, if any, did she play in bringing it about?
Eva’s case seems to be that Kevin was born a psychopath—a psychopath whose whole life is geared toward tormenting her. Kevin’s cruelties appear to be designed with his mother as the audience. Shriver makes much of the parallels between Eva and Kevin, and some of the most memorable shots in the film position mother and son as doubles of one another. Kevin derives extra enjoyment from the performance of doting son that he artfully puts on for the benefit of his annoyingly credulous father (John C. Reilly). Ultimately, however, in the film as in the novel, it is Kevin that is the weakest element. In the film, this isn’t because of poor performances—all of the actors who play Kevin are excellent, with Miller, who plays the teenage Kevin, particularly worthy of commendation. The problem is that the character of Kevin neither comes off as naturalistically plausible nor as mythically compelling: instead, he is a sour melodrama turn, a sullen pantomime villain, a demon from the wrong kind of horror film. The film, like the book, equivocates between explaining Kevin’s actions and holding that their evil consists precisely in their resistance to explanation. Much like the Joker in The Dark Knight, Kevin rejects and ridicules any explanation for his actions, including one he offers himself. He later laughs at the explanation he himself proffers in a TV interview—that he wanted to “pass onto the other side of the screen, become what everyone else was watching”—dismissing it as facile. “The secret is that there is no secret,” Shriver writes, and Kevin wants to be a true rebel without a cause, his violence an inexplicable passage a l’acte, whose radical freedom consists in the fact that it is both uncaused and without a reason. In refusing to offer easy explanations, both the film and the novel collude with Kevin’s ambition—but neither succeed in making him into a convincing enigma.