The striking opening image of We Need to Talk About Kevin, a birds’ eye view of an army of bodies writhing in a sea of crushed tomatoes (we may wonder if it’s blood at first), lets us know more than we may suspect about the film. This chaos of red, with its stumbling and slithering human forms, is an image out of time and space; we don’t know where we are, or when this is happening, or if it’s even real. It’s probably the “Tomatina” festival in Valencia, and since our lead character Eva (Tilda Swinton) is a travel agent, this is probably an event she’s been to at some point in her mangled life. But still. We know everything about the feel of the thing and nothing about the why, or the how, or the when, or even the who. That seems to be a good way to describe Lynne Ramsay’s cinema in general. This one, however, stands out.
I might be the only film snob in the universe who wasn’t a huge fan of Ramsay’s earlier films. Morvern Callar and Ratcatcher both felt too ethereal and distant to me; in my mind, they immediately vanished into the ether. So I wasn’t quite prepared for the cutting precision of We Need to Talk About Kevin. There’s something about the movie that seems etched in stone. Every moment is controlled, every composition perfectly arranged. But along with this comes a certain lost-ness. We don’t always know what we’re looking at, or how much to trust our own eyes. It feels like a film one of Ramsay’s characters might make -- unreliable yet persistent, exacting yet dizzy. But in a good way.
As you may already know, We Need to Talk about Kevin is a film about Eva dealing – or, more accurately, failing to deal -- with her young, probably psychotic son (played by several actors, most notably Afterschool’s Ezra Miller in his teenage years). The film cuts back and forth between Eva as she is in the present -- a nervous wreck living alone in a rundown house, working as a secretary in a modest travel agency -- and as she was in the early years of Kevin’s life – a self-absorbed and successful career woman with a loving pushover of a husband (John C. Reilly) and a beautiful, cruelly unresponsive baby boy.
In the flashbacks, time passes: Kevin grows; a younger sister is born; the family moves to suburbia; a pet hamster meets a horrific fate. In the present day, however, time seems to stand still: Eva works away at her dead-end job, endures strange looks, keeps to herself, and is occasionally approached by strangers with some kind of axe to grind. Except of course they’re not strangers: I’m not really giving anything away by revealing that the film builds to a harrowing massacre perpetrated by our titular adolescent beast, and these strangers’ children were Kevin’s victims. (In the present, we also see Eva visiting Kevin in prison, so the film isn’t really keeping any of this a secret.)
It sounds pretty upsetting, and it is, but it’s not exactly unbearable – perhaps because Ramsay isn’t going for realism. This is an outlandish film, right down to Kevin’s chosen instrument of murder. It’s a horror movie-cum-domestic allegory, re-imagined as an absurdist, almost comic fever dream: The Omen meets Parenthood, only stranger. Is the son evil because the mother doesn’t love him, or does she not love him because he’s evil? Or is it possible that none of this is real in the first place, and that Eva’s memories are instead a recasting, a reinvention of a horrific tragedy designed to somehow make it make sense.
It’s telling that the present day of the film seems to consist of a series of punishments. Which seems a mite unfair: Eva herself is a victim of Kevin’s crime, in more profound ways than might at first seem. So why then do these other characters and the movie punish her so? Maybe because it’s not really they who are doing the punishing. Consider the fact that the punishments themselves seem decidedly unreal: Early in the film Eva opens her door to find her house covered – and I mean, covered – in red paint. But the red paint is streaked across her bathroom mirrors, too. Did they get inside? Was the window open? Or is all that red paint coming from some place within Eva? Similarly, we see her scratching something caked and red from her hair at one point in the film. What is it? More paint? Blood? Tomatoes?
One could argue that the film stacks the decks against Eva – Kevin seems so cruel, and she at times so selfish -- but let’s not forget that memories tend to stack the deck against us as well. We never remember things as they were, but rather the way we want them to have been, or the way we fear they were. This all seems in keeping with Eva’s mindset. At one point, a couple of well-dressed missionary types come to the door asking her if she knows how she’s spending the afterlife. “Oh, I’m going straight to Hell. Eternal damnation, the whole thing,” she says pleasantly, and the expression on Swinton’s face is one of relief. There, she seems to be thinking, I said it. What she anticipates, however, has already happened. We Need to Talk about Kevin is a film about a woman who craves her own damnation, and, in fact, makes it inevitable.