TIFF 2011: Lynne Ramsay’s ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ complex, true, and terrifying

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We Need to Talk about Kevin

Written by Lynne Ramsay and Rory Kinnear (novel by Lionel Shriver)

Directed by Lynna Ramsay

UK & USA, 2011

Hidden at the back of our mind is the darkness that roams the labyrinth. The minotaur becomes the unspeakable evil, the figure with the body of a man and the mind of a monster. The action of a single force shaping the subconscious instincts and patterns of each life it touched. It is the waking dream and huddled in a cold room at night; you can’t escape its clutch. Guilty for having survived and incapable of escaping its grasp, you hate yourself for being so vulnerable. You fear the world because evil exists.

More Rosemary’s Baby than Elephant, Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk about Kevin explores the life of a mother whose son commits a heinous crime. The film moves back and forth in time, examining the minute nuances of their complex and stunted relationship. Eva (Tilda Swinton) struggles from the onset to create a meaningful relationship with her son and after his killing spree, she cuts herself off from a world that is quick to condemn her.

The film works as a story of intense grief as Swinton first must deal with her lack of elation when she becomes a mother and the guilt she feels when she subsequently “fails” to prevent her son from killing many of his classmates. There are only brief moments in Eva’s life when she does not fear something sinister lurking in the psyche of her son, but she is helpless to deal with the situation. Every person she confines in puts the blame on her failures as a mother.

Ramsay’s modernist aesthetic continually returns to the structure of the body. Blood is a central motif, an element of foreshadowing to the massacre that takes place in the film but also a constant reminder that mother and son are connected deeply. Eva’s desire to break out and explore the world is externalized by a room she creates for herself using maps as wallpaper. She leaves for a moment, and her son destroys it all. The faint lines of the roads and rivers like veins and nerves, the ones he doesn’t rewire he cuts off entirely. He refuses to let his mother forget that she is his creator and she exists inside of him.

In adapting a first person novel, it is always difficult to establish a strong central voice without relying on voice-over narration. This film does this through a non-linear storyline that explores a combating reality of memory and nightmare. We are not always aware of what spatial or physical space we are in, creating a sense of disorientation and claustrophobia.

Psychology becomes essential and the film does not try to rationalize the reason for Kevin’s crime. Eva suspects her son is capable of violence, but her mind is unable to conceive the true scope of his “ambition”. His act of violence is predictable without being predicted, and in context of the film stands as being senseless and random.

As someone whose life has been directly touched by the events of a crime much like the one presented in the film, I am not sure there exists a more complex and “true” portrait of the individual and social post-traumatic stress associated with the kind of act Kevin commits. Swinton delivers a performance that suggests so much suffering and fear. The film succeeds in a few key scenes that rely on very carefully orchestrated ambiguity, often between mother and son, which subvert expected emotional gratification. We Need to Talk about Kevin is a difficult film that will challenge and repel audiences, offering a look at our inability to find the light in the darkness.

Justine Smith

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8th to the 18th. Tickets, schedules, and other information can be found on the festival’s website.

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