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We Need To Talk About Kevin…And Much More


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For tragic, violent events, American news outlets typically focus on the event itself, before delving into the character of the perpetrator. The aftermath is rarely shown or discussed in terms of who feels the effects. Similarly, the lead up gets the cursory glance before focusing on what caused it—outside the people in question—and how to prevent it in the future.

We Need to Talk About Kevin, based on a 2003 novel, simultaneously discusses the beforehand through the struggles of motherhood and the aftermath with how the family and town are changed. Tilda Swinton stars as Eva, a skittish woman with a tenuous hold on her sanity in the present day after her son, Kevin, terrorized her and his school two years prior.

Well-known for a travel book, Eva seeks work at a travel agency to regain some sense of normalcy to her life, but this attempt is torn to shreds each time she returns home—a home vandalized by red paint and empty of food, decoration or anything symbolizing comfort. Her family disappeared for various reasons—Kevin to prison—so she is left alone facing her angry neighbors.

This depressing present is juxtaposed with flashbacks to Eva’s previous life with her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) and two children. At first, Eva and Franklin have the love struck relationship any newlyweds boast and the arrival of a baby worries them, but no more than normal. When Kevin is born, however, Eva’s life deteriorates. As an infant, Kevin refuses to stop crying for his mother. As a toddler, he obstinately ignores her affections and interactions. She tosses a red ball his way; he stares menacingly. “Kevin, could you say ‘mommy’?” “No.”

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Writer/director Lynne Ramsey employs a red motif throughout the film as a way of building the intensity. The beginning sequences hammer this home with red paint, doors, leaves, flashing lights on a digital clock and the glow of street lamps. This aesthetic coupled with Swinton’s manic performance erodes your patience before even meeting the terror that is Kevin.

The only breaks in psychological manipulation come from odd musical choices. Upbeat songs find their way into the film at the most unusual moments. At one point, a Japanese shamisen comes, turning the battle between Eva and Kevin into one between calculating samurai even though the little fighter clearly has the upper hand.

When he gets older, the disobedience intensifies into outright hatred. Eva tries to maintain her calm, but when a (roughly) six-year-old Kevin soils his diaper just to spite her, she snaps. The resulting broken arm serves as a marker of respect between son and mother. He recognizes the strength in her and backs off slightly. A new sister spoils the respect and breeds deeper bitterness. After a few more acts of insolence, Kevin’s defiance fades briefly until he is a teenager, played with menace by Ezra Miller in a far cry from his turn in Perks of Being a Wallflower.

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The one constant throughout Kevin’s childhood is a surprising level of intelligence. He understands his mother perfectly on every level, but simply denies her entry into his heart. As a teenager, this means more emotionally destructive comments that further break Eva’s psyche. The constant attacks and Kevin’s predilection towards violent or dangerous activities lead to the terrifying climax at his high school, with which Americans are all too familiar. However, Ramsey makes an interesting choice to let Kevin’s weapon of choice be a bow and arrow, rather than a gun, which almost dulls her social commentary.

Consequently, We Need to Talk About Kevin is not about this Kevin; it’s about the countless Kevins we’ve encountered on the news. Further, it details how the parents of the perpetrators react and are affected in the wake of traumatic events enacted by their offspring. These children often show signs of violence that are brushed aside as childish phases by parents unwilling to accept what they’ve created: a monster. We see this firsthand the final time Eva visits Kevin in prison in present day, as she fails in burying her undying love for her son.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is jarring and not conducive to repeat viewings, but it is topically relevant in the years since its release. The film is brilliant for its ability to capture the tension of such a tragedy without focusing on the actual event for more than a few minutes. It sparks a conversation about that thing many Americans don’t want to discuss, but we need to talk about it and we need to see it in different lights to better see the trend. This is a good start.

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  1. It’s Ezra Miller’s creepy and mesmerising performance that is the real success of this movie. Good review.

    • Agreed. I also think the casting director did an excellent job getting each of the stages of Kevin before reaching Miller. They all worked in unison to build this utterly detestable character.

      Thanks for reading!

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