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.

We Need to Talk About Kevin. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

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.

  1. The Mailman says:

    I recently wandered into a dinner conversation with friends about the movie I had seen the film a year ago and really couldn’t remember enough of the nuances to support my theory that Kevin was Eva’s alter ego. Hence the androgyny , the removal of egg shells at the prison(probation officer?court ordered shrink? ) visit, the house she wanted vs the one her husband gave, blaming a dead child for a miserable life etc I need to view again because I was struck not so much by the dismissal of my view but by the adamancy and stridency of same. Is anyone else out there who espouses my opinion? In the meantime I’ll settle in for a rerun.

  2. bálint says:

    Mailman! I have just thought about the same thing. I am a bit disappointed though that nowhere on the internet was there an explanation similar to yours.

  3. Abigail says:

    I read the book prior to watching the film and I have come up with many conclusions about the book/movie. There is one however that I have long pondered. I believe that Kevin really loved his mother truly. His wickedness towards her was his way of denying himself rejection by her. He became aware at a very young age that she did not have any kind of connection with him and wanted to ensure that she would never know that he loved/needed her. In his few moments of weakness this is very evident. For example in the film when he is sick. He did not have the energy to keep up the rouse, thus him letting his guard down and finally letting her get close to him. He needed to find a way that the two of them would be the only person each other had. And that is evident at both the end of the film and the book. She finally feels love toward him and he needs her again. Does this explanation appeal to anyone else?

  4. Peach says:

    I don’t even remember when I stumbled upon this film. It’s been a while. But, since just telling some people about it today, I thought to look up reviews on the movie and found this page.

    The SOLE purpose of my commenting is to say that, in all my years of reading film reviews, I have NEVER come across one like this. What Mr. Fisher has done is write the type of review that I’ve longed for. FINALLY. THIS is what a film review SHOULD BE.

    I’ve come to largely disregard most “top film critics” opinions as have many I know. Why? Because they aren’t really reviewing a film. They don’t inform, they snark. And their ultimate goal in writing a review is to display themselves as they hyper-intelligent, hyper-well read, hyper-hip snobs who point out that most films fall beneath their high-brow stratosphere.

    “A worn-out Hollywood cliche” “A story line we’ve seen many times before”…how many times have I seen those lines? So I guess the Greeks were wrong in doing the themes of tragedy and comedy over and over? What reviewers, when too full of themselves, forget is that for the most part, people go to see a film to be ENTERTAINED. Was “When Harry Met Sally” ground breaking? No. Were the Harry Potter movies considered a cinema masterpiece? No. Did reviewers trash them? Yup. But the masses have spoken.

    If we were rid of the self-serving egotistical “top” reviewers who’s only claim to fame is who well they can turn a phrase trashing a film and replaced them with more Mark Fishers, maybe we could actually put faith in a film review and, more importantly, learn something valuable from it.

  5. Angela says:

    Having recently read ‘The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog’ and much more on child development and disorders I think it is important to remember that this is a work of fiction. Lots of babies refuse to feed. I’d love to read the sequel … something like “Talking to Kevin” to discover that Kevin had been systematically abused, either by his mother or father, from birth or that he suffers from some severe abnormal brain activity (mental illness or injury) … I refuse to believe the old-school, religion based idea that some people are just ‘born evil’. Shriver’s ‘out of America’ bitterness is clear – much like a child growing up and finding that her parents are just ordinary people just like everyone else.

  6. Emma says:

    I really liked Abigal’s theory for Kevin’s behaviour. That explanation made me feel satisfied with the ending of the book, which, otherwise made no sense at all. Why would a sociopath suddenly change and become emotional towards his mother (I never understood that in the book until Abigal’s explanation). Thanks

  7. Sarah says:

    @ Angela I agree with you completely when discussing real life situations. However, I think this story is really about the assertion that western society still sees motherhood as the ultimate attainment for a woman. Eva is a successful person on many levels, but it is her inability to bond with her son in a conventional way that will define her. Being perceived as a failure as a mother is seen as the ultimate disgrace.

  8. Jennifer says:

    I haven’t read the book but the movie was ultimately unfulfilling. His behaviour defies explanation. Abigail’s explanation doesn’t sit quite right with me, I took his “weakness” when sick as another manipulation of her emotions. Sarah’s folds up some ties a bit better. I really don’t understand why he was so vindictive. Perhaps the book gives more insight into their relationship. He just seemed like a horrible pyschopathic child. Except not entirely psychopathic because he appeared to delight in torturing his mother, rather than torturing all things.

  9. Prãbha says:

    As everything is but illusion, let me comment on what my “observer” saw: Kevin needed his mother. Eva was ambivalent about motherhood and she felt guilty about it. Kevin felt unloved because she couldn’t give to him a clear bond-feeling. Implicitly she gave him the message: -you annoy me, you don’t exist the way I would like you to exist. Kevin, a very intelligent boy, was also from birth, neurologically disturbed. The condition was quite difficult for an ambivalent mother, who did not receive guidance from competent professionals, and whom did not know her soon was neurologically ill. Nobody knew.
    Kevin ensured not to let her know that he loved/needed her. Instead, to PROVE HER HIS EXISTENCE, he adopted different kind of strategies: observation, manipulation, control, attack, nastiness… The situation went out of her hands by not announcing clearly what was happening. She never confronted him, probably because of guilt and self-doubt. At times, when he was ill, he let his guard down and she could get closer to him. By his serial killing, Kevin proved HIS EXISTENCE to the world. At the end of the film, he did not know why he had done what he had done and with his guard down, he could accept the proximity of his mother who never abandoned him, even in the worst circumstances. She could provably pay her guilt by “loving him”, even when he had killed her husband and her daughter.

  10. Tracy Taub says:

    Whether we like it or not, whether or not we are comfortable with the idea, there are people “born that way” when it comes to sociopathy or any of the range of personality disorders. It has to do with genetics, chemistry, nutrition in utero- a whole host of complex interactions that we are only beginning to understand.

    Nuture overlays onto nature; sometimes genetic tendencies can be turned off and on, rerouted. Child abuse and dysfunction inflicted onto a non-psychopathic leaning child will produce unhealthy distortions, sure, but will not in and of itself produce a psychopathic child.

    It’s a difficult reality to accept, that Kevin’s mother might not have been responsible after all, despite her flaws, but there it is. She might have been, but maybe not.