Those expecting Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2002) when sitting down to watch Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) are going to be in for a surprise. While both films focus on school massacres, Van Sant threads together long-take tracking shots to give us a sense of dread and foreboding straight out of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980), which establish the victims just as much (if not more so) than the villains. We Need to Talk About Kevin, realized in handheld shots and subjective editing, is less about the slaughter and the victims than it is about the perpetrator, Kevin (Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell and Rocky Duer) and the forces that created him.
Those forces, like a perverse-inverse of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), are nature and nurture. Unlike Malick, Ramsay reverses the roles of nature and grace. The matriarch, Eva (a remarkable Tilda Swinton), is an emotionally distant and stern caregiver who minds her crying infant by attempting to drown out his screams with a jackhammer. It’s implied that she never wanted the parental responsibility and that her life with her husband (John C. Reilly) was a hell of a lot better before Kevin came along.
Eva is distant but not abusive and Kevin’s eventual sociopathic behavior is not purely the product of her parenting decisions. Kevin is also born a bad seed, incapable of empathy. Ramsay, who co-adapted Lionel Shriver’s novel with Rory Stewart Kinnear, deliberately keeps us from making an absolute judgment. When Kevin is sick, he seems to share a genuine moment with his mother, cuddling as she reads him Robin Hood. Yet, this seemingly genuine moment later takes on a sinister quality when we discover that it may have been the root of Kevin’s interest in archery, his chosen tool for the massacre.
Yet, the film is as much about Kevin and the killings as it is about Eva and the burden of motherhood. Ramsay adopts Eva’s point-of-view for the narrative and uses Eva’s subjectivity to structure the film. Shots of Eva running through hallways to discover the aftermath of her son’s day at school mesh with shots of Eva walking down a hallway, pregnant with Kevin. She is going through the mental exercise of asking Kevin “Why?,” while we share her discoveries through the terrifying phantasms of hindsight.
Making the film’s tone even more disturbing, Ramsay infuses a healthy dose of the grotesque. She defamiliarizes the everyday through techniques that create a tone that simultaneously inspire horror and laughter. The director continually deforms her characters with extreme close ups of body parts and bodily fluids and uses music to make us feel unbalanced. The instrumental score, composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, ratchets up the tension. Yet, the soundtrack selections are often ironic, adding some awkward moments of dark comedy to the film.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is not going to be a widely accepted film. It asks deep questions about identity and comes up with some difficult-to-swallow, morally-complex answers about a murderer, all realized through a grotesque and rigorous embodiment of subjectivity. Yet, compared to The Tree of Life, Kevin is far less superficial when asking large questions and providing the answers. Instead of a New Age Calvin Klein commercial that attempts to answer all life’s questions with tracking shots and whispering, Ramsay gives Kevin a concrete answer…even if it remains a temporary and elusive one.