“We need to talk about Kevin” hits UK cinemas
“We need to talk about Kevin”, published in 2003, was one of the most debated and dissected books of a decade. With controversy about the novel still ringing in our ears, Lynne Ramsay’s film adaptation will be released in UK cinemas on 21 October.
Adapted from Lionel Shriver’s prize winning novel, the film explores the tense and disturbing relationship between an ambivalent mother and Kevin, her sadistic son. The story is told through the trembling recollections of Eva, the mother living amongst the ruins of a high school massacre.
Jettisoning the prescriptive image of the ‘natural mother’, Shriver’s novel was met with spirited outrage. Critics were quick to denounce it for spurning one of the few ideas our society still holds sacred; the benevolent parent-child bond. And the writer’s own child free status only added fuel to the ensuing flames.
To some readers, “We need to talk about Kevin” advocates the belief that a child can be born evil. To others, it provides vindication for hating your child and embracing rampant individualism, free from guilt. Readers are taunted with the need to ascribe blame for the high school massacre committed by Kevin. Who is the monster? Kevin, a born sociopath or his cold and uncaring mother?
But for many childless women, Shriver’s novel has also been toasted as the long overdue legitimization for their life style choice. The book is seen to fly the flag for a generation of women opting out of motherhood. This, rather than the controversy it caused, is likely to be the novel’s enduring legacy.
Regardless of how you straddle the debate, “We need to talk about Kevin” is no easy read. And anyone familiar with Director Lynne Ramsay’s earlier works, most famously Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar, won’t be holding out for a cosy rendering of the subject.
In Ramsay’s deft, visually poetic hands and with icy cult heroine Tilda Swinton on board from the beginning, a film adaptation of Shriver’s story always promised to be riveting.
Ramsay’s film uses subtle humour and warm, luscious imagery to offset the uncomfortable themes. The result is a film that so easily could have been sensational and unrelentingly bleak, but is instead believable and absorbing.
Casting Swinton, known for her androgynous good looks and brittle on-screen presence, seems to have been a deliberate provocation to the debate over ‘natural mothers’. When we close our eyes and imagine what an ‘unnatural mother’ might look like, it could well be Swinton’s face we conjure.
And this is not Ramsay’s only casting choice which provocatively indulges persistent physical stereotypes. Kevin confronts the audience as the scowling embodiment of the black sheep, significantly darker than his Aryan family.
By contrast his innocent and adorable younger sister Celie flits about with flowing blonde hair, in a series of angelic night gowns.
But these stereotypes; the dark, brooding delinquent, the sweet princess, the spiky, ‘unfeminine’ witch-mother, are indulged only to be snatched away and exposed as nothing more than intoxicating illusion. The film’s shifting, nuanced focus denies at every turn the audience’s attempt to find a reliable narrative view point.
Played by Ezra Miller, Kevin is a slick and malignant teen menace. Through narrowed eyes, Miller evokes the nihilistic, smart mouthed “l’enfant terrible” that baby boomers so fear.
But Kevin’s last scene is pivotal. He sits, head newly shaven, terrified as to what awaits him on his impending graduation to an adult penitentiary.
For the first time we see him stripped of his hard faced bravado and withering detachment. He is just a scared and unhappy boy. Kevin’s power to chill is revealed as nothing more than carefully cultivated posturing, disturbingly similar to the posturing sported by teens we know or used to be.
In both book and film, what seems at first a rallying cry for individualism over family duty later gives way to a sober reflection on the enduring, unglamorous reality of love.
Despite destroying her life as she always feared he would, Eva still comes every month to visit her son in prison. Through boredom, awkwardness and pain, she loves him. Not a snuggling, Kodak moment love but a symbiotic connection which bonds them in darkness as well as light.
We need to talk about Kevin doesn’t deny the parent-child bond. Rather, it insists upon it, only shorn of the fuzzy sentimentality which usually dictates how we are allowed to talk about parenthood.
In Shriver’s book, few people are beyond culpability, the reader included. This aspect translates particularly well on screen as the audience is forced to share in the blame. Speaking to the camera, Kevin chillingly addresses his engrossed spectators;
“What are you watching? You’re watching me. If I was a straight A student you’d have turned over by now.”
With discomfort we are reminded of our thirst for serial killers and our need to elevate them to celebrity status; the highest rank for “feral” youth with nothing left to believe in. As Kevin exits the gym, the scene of the killings, he bows to the screaming throngs which greet him as a star to his adoring public.
The high school massacre is the magnum opus of a child acutely aware of the defunct ideologies and moral hypocrisies that surround him. As we pull away in fear from Kevin, we partly pull away from our own guilt at having created him.