Like many eventual classics, Lionel Shriver’s novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin, was the novel that nearly never made it. Her agent dismissed it. A novel with a massacre at its heart? 9/11 had just knocked the wind out of America, Columbine was too recent and war was rolling out across the middle-east...surely what people wanted was escapism in their fiction. And such an unsympathetic narrator! She suggested injecting some more humour. Shriver dropped her.
What her agent was reacting to is what makes the novel, and now the extraordinary film, so affecting. Moreso than all the self-consciously “Post 9/11” fiction and film – the novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, for example, soon to be released as a film, or Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centre – it succeeds in capturing the mood of a time. Indirectly, it distils that feeling of sudden, almost unaccountable loss, dissecting what happens when a way of life is eviscerated. And, crucially – when things go wrong, how much should we blame ourselves?
Watching writer/director Lynne Ramsey’s adaptation of We Need To Talk About Kevin is an unsettling experience. Not merely for the subject matter, but for the way its scenes shift and slide, effortlessly, between past and present. Memories are presented like shards of shattered mirror, their depths examined for the pain or pleasure of their contents and then dropped, leaving behind a shallow but stinging wound.
When we first see Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton) in the throng of Tomatino Festival, Spain, she is blissfully happy. The image snaps to Eva lying in a darkened room. She is surrounded: half-eaten food, unwashed laundry, spilled medication, crockery and cutlery and a solitary wineglass stained with the lurid reminder of red wine. She stumbles outside into the light, and sees that her home has been vandalised, red paint splashed across her small duplex. She makes her way to work in a travel agency, hidden behind dark sunglasses, head dipped, beige clothes a kind of camouflage, not so much worn as wrapped around her body.
An exquisite patchwork narrative emerges: we realise how much Eva is living past and present together. The horror of any experience, even one remembered, can return to us without warning. Some things can never truly be left behind. Grocery shopping, Eva encounters two women – one strikes her, the other fastidiously breaks all twelve eggs in Eva’s shopping trolley. These women’s faces are as haunted as Eva’s. We are shown, briefly, flashes of light and noise: the scene outside a school, these women distraught, looking on as their children’s lifeless bodies are wheeled away.
Eva had a husband called Franklyn (played by John C Reilly), and a son, Kevin (played by a number of unnerving, dark-eyed young actors, but ultimately becoming the magnetic Ezra Miller), and even a daughter (Ashley Gerasimovich). Franklyn insists on the perfect American family – a sort of oblivious, “Give him a break, he’s just a normal kid!” attitude to parenting which does more to lever open the gap between the ideal and the actual, his denial of anything other than wholesomeness pushing him further from his son, not bringing him closer. Eva’s relationship with Kevin is ambivalent at best. As an infant, the child cries all the time, and as a toddler he refuses to play, is precocious but also fatalistic – at no older than eight he declares, “I have no personality”. Eva and Kevin are two lonely souls unable to reconcile themselves to each other’s necessary existence.
A great deal can be made of the Nature vs Nurture argument here. Did the child intuit from the beginning that he was unwanted by his mother? Is it lack of love that drives him towards his defining act? Well, Kevin is a teenager with all the answers. He has his motivation perfectly worked out. Unlike everyone human being leading an automatic life – sleep, work, sleep, work, sleep, then death – he wishes to set himself apart. To do something. After he has spent all his arrows, he takes a bow to imagined applause. When he emerges from his perfectly executed execution, he raises his hands, glowing in the spotlight from Police cars and television crews. He is infamous: suddenly, Kevin is the name on everyone’s lips. He matters.
On Eva’s last visit to see him in the juvenile detention centre – Kevin was only fifteen when he committed his atrocity, too young by some days to be tried as an adult, something he knew well at the time, but after two years is to be moved to an adult prison – perhaps there is something changing. Eva poses the immortal question: Why? And Kevin, for once, has no answers. This unknowing, this inability to surround his actions with reasons of the abstract or philosophical, gives Eva some spark of hope. Maybe Kevin will embrace the senselessness of what he has done, in the same way as Eva herself must embrace the kind of love a mother has for their son – irrational yet irresistible. She goes home, and like Lady Macbeth trying to rid her hand of that foul spot of blood, throughout the film we have seen Eva working to remove the red mark of vandalism from her house. In the end, she succeeds. She launders Kevin’s clothes and tugs his bed-sheets drum-tight, preparing a space for him in the knowledge that when his release comes he will need a home, and she will provide him with one.
Lynne Ramsey’s desire to unpick the seemingly senseless side of humanity (a feature of her previous work, Morvern Callar and Ratcatcher) and her unflinching determination to document every moment of Eva’s journey with truth, tragedy and just a little humour – the power she siphons from each razor-sharp performance – makes her film instantly important, and essential. Everyone should see it. Days later, I still can’t shake the experience. Now more than ever, everyone should be talking about Kevin.
We Need To Talk About Kevin is released in cinemas nationwide on Friday